By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
KHOST, Afghanistan -- Pfc. Monica Brown cracked open the door of her Humvee outside a remote village in eastern Afghanistan to the soft pop of bullets shot by Taliban fighters. But instead of taking cover, the 18-year-old medic grabbed her bag and ran through gunfire toward fellow soldiers in a crippled and burning vehicle.
Vice President Cheney pinned Brown, of Lake Jackson, Tex., with a Silver Star in March for repeatedly risking her life on April 25, 2007, to shield and treat her wounded comrades, displaying bravery and grit. She is the second woman since World War II to receive the nation's third-highest combat medal.
Within a few days of her heroic acts, however, the Army pulled Brown out of the remote camp in Paktika province where she was serving with a cavalry unit -- because, her platoon commander said, Army restrictions on women in combat barred her from such missions.
"We weren't supposed to take her out" on missions "but we had to because there was no other medic," said Lt. Martin Robbins, a platoon leader with Charlie Troop, 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, whose men Brown saved. "By regulations you're not supposed to," he said, but Brown "was one of the guys, mixing it up, clearing rooms, doing everything that anybody else was doing."
In Afghanistan as well as Iraq, female soldiers are often tasked to work in all-male combat units -- not only for their skills but also for the culturally sensitive role of providing medical treatment for local women, as well as searching them and otherwise interacting with them. Such war-zone pragmatism is at odds with Army rules intended to bar women from units that engage in direct combat or collocate with combat forces.
Military personnel experts say that as a result, the 1992 rules are vague, ill defined, and based on an outmoded concept of wars with clear front lines that rarely exist in today's counterinsurgencies.
"The current policy is not actionable," concluded a Rand Corp. study last year on the Army's assignment of women. "Crafted for a linear battlefield," the policy does not conform to the nature of warfare today and uses concepts such as "forward and well forward [that] were generally acknowledged to be almost meaningless in the Iraqi theater," it said.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, noncombat units in which women serve face many of the same threats that all-male combat arms units do and are performing well, commanders say. "Army personnel were consistent in their perception that a strict adherence to the Army policy would have negative implications" and that the policy should be revised or revoked, the Rand study said.The Caretaker and Boss
Brown never imagined she would be a soldier, let alone one decorated for gallantry in combat. Growing up in central Texas, she had bounced around to nine schools, moving frequently with her brothers and mother, a nurse, before going to live with her grandmother Katy at age 15.
Despite the itinerant life, Brown excelled academically. She graduated from high school a year and a half early -- a day after turning 17. She planned to enroll in college, but that changed when her brother Justin, who was a year older and like a twin, was drawn to the Army.
Justin had long dreamed of becoming an infantryman, and one day they stopped by the recruiting office together, Brown said in an interview in Khost. On impulse, she offered to join with him. Grinning, they announced the decision to their grandmother, who said she "didn't feel it was the right time with the war on."
But Brown persuaded her grandmother to allow her to join with her brother before she turned 18. Justin "was older, but she was always the caretaker, always the boss," Katy Brown said.
He joined the infantry and Brown enlisted as a medic in November 2005. In 2007, they deployed to Afghanistan. When word came in March that year to Brown's medical unit at the large U.S. base in Khost that a small outpost of mainly infantrymen and engineers needed a female medic, her leadership did not hesitate.
"Brown," she was told, "you're going."
The outpost in Paktika province was little more than a cluster of tents walled off with dirt-filled barriers. There were no flush toilets or running water, and Brown worked in an 8-by-5-foot medical aid station barely big enough for a stretcher. "I loved it," she said.
Then, when fighting against the Taliban intensified in the spring, Brown was placed with Delta and Charlie troops as a line medic, spending days on combat operations. "It was more like a constant mission, because . . . there was more Taliban acting up," placing roadside bombs and attacking bases, she recalled.
"What we would do is go out for four or five days, come back to the FOB [forward operating base], get resupplied for eight hours then go right back out," she said. "If we got tips Taliban were in a village, we went there."Mortars and Fire
At dusk on April 25, 2007, Brown's platoon had just finished searching for a Taliban leader near the village of Jani Khel. The convoy of four Humvees and one Afghan National Army pickup truck had turned into a dry streambed when a pressure-plate bomb exploded under the rear Humvee.
"Two-One is hit!" Staff Sgt. Jose Santos yelled. Looking back, Brown saw the Humvee engulfed in a fireball as its fuel tank and fuel cans ignited. Insurgents about 100 yards to the east opened up with machine guns and AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, as Brown and Santos ran without cover to the burning vehicle.
Four of those injured crawled or were thrown from the Humvee, while a fifth, Spec. Larry Spray, was caught inside by his boot and was on fire. Sgt. Zachary Tellier managed to pull him out.
Brown and a colleague then grabbed Spec. Stanson Smith, who was in shock and blinded by blood from his lacerated forehead, and dragged him by his body armor into a ditch about 15 yards away. Tellier helped Spray limp over.
No sooner were they in the ditch that insurgents began firing mortars. Brown threw her body over Smith, shielding him as more than a dozen rounds hit nearby. The ammunition inside the burning Humvee then started exploding, including 60mm mortars, 40mm grenade rounds and rifle ammunition. Again, Brown lay over the wounded.
Robbins, the platoon leader, repositioned his Humvee near the injured and was incredulous that Brown had survived. "I was surprised I didn't get killed and she'd been over there for 10, 15 minutes longer," he recalled.
"There was small arms coming in from two different machine-gun positions, mortars falling . . . a burning Humvee with 16 mortar rounds in it, chunks of aluminum the size of softballs flying all around," said Robbins, of Portsmouth, R.I. "It was about as hairy as it gets."
Santos, the platoon sergeant, drove the pickup over to get the wounded to safety. "It was pretty much just like a miracle run," Brown recalled. With another soldier, she hoisted Smith onto the truck, while Spray crouched behind the back window and Brown dived onto a bench in the back. There, Brown put pressure on Smith's head, which was bleeding heavily, and also held the hand of Spray, who was charred and shaking.
"Talk to him," she told Spray, trying to keep Smith conscious. Spray, his face contorted with pain and fear, responded: "It's going to be okay."
Santos drove to a more protected position, while Brown bandaged Smith and Spray, gave them IVs and readied them for the helicopters that arrived 45 minutes later. Brown "never looked around or anything," Robbins said. "She was focused on the patients the whole time. She did her job perfectly."
Smith and Spray were flown to the United States, and Tellier received a Bronze Star for pulling Spray from the Humvee. He was killed five months later in another firefight.
Brown stayed in the field for two more days, while U.S. Apache helicopter gunships attacked insurgents and blew up the damaged Humvee. Within a week, however, she was abruptly called back to the sprawling U.S. base in Khost.
"I got pulled" by higher-ups, she said, because her presence as "a female in a combat arms unit" had attracted attention.'I Didn't Want to Leave'
President Bush has forcefully backed the Army's restrictions, asserting in a January 2005 interview with the Washington Times that there should be "no women in combat." Since her heroic actions, however, Brown was promoted to specialist and has been congratulated by Cheney in Afghanistan, praised in a meeting with Bush at a NATO summit in Romania, and offered a job on the White House staff.
Military officers in the field and independent experts have said it is both infeasible and contrary to the Army's own warfighting doctrine to prevent women from serving in proximity to -- or together with -- all-male combat units in today's war zones. They contend that if the goal of the policy is to protect women from capture or bodily harm, it cannot be done in the scramble of conflicts such as those in the Middle East.
Across Afghanistan, female medics such as Brown are regularly sent to serve with combat units. "The real catch was to have a female medic out there because of the cultural sensitivities and the flexibility that gave commanders," said Maj. Paul Narowski, the executive officer of Brown's battalion. "It is absolutely not about gender in terms of how well they will do," he said, adding that he does not know why Brown was pulled out.
The only other female Silver Star recipient in the past 60 years was Sgt. Lee Ann Hester, a military policewoman in Iraq who the Army said had responded to a 2005 insurgent attack on a convoy by firing grenades.
"I didn't want to leave," Brown said, after being pulled from the platoon. Robbins said he and his men, who called Brown "Doc," also wanted to keep her as their medic.
"I've seen a lot of grown men who didn't have the courage and weren't able to handle themselves under fire like she did," said Staff Sgt. Aaron Best of Canton, N.C., Robbins's gunner that day. "She never missed a beat."