Pvt. Teresa Broadwell is in the middle of the maelstrom, standing on tiptoe in the turret of a Humvee in a vain attempt, at 5 feet 4 inches tall, to see through the sight of her M-249 machine gun. American soldiers are down in the street. Iraqis are firing at her truck from the rooflines and alleyways along Highway 9 near the center of this dusty city an hour south of Baghdad.

Her lieutenant, Jay Guerrero, jumps out of the Humvee to help rescue his wounded comrades. He needs Broadwell's cover to suppress the Iraqis' withering fire and listens for the distinctive bursts of her potent weapon.

Before this gun battle ends, three Americans will be killed and seven wounded. For Broadwell, 20, a year and a half out of high school, having chosen the Army over a modern-dance scholarship to the University of North Texas, her moment of truth in combat has arrived.

The Army prohibits women from serving in infantry, artillery and armored units, the combat brigades on the front lines of war. For years, women like Broadwell and her commander in the 194th Military Police Company, Capt. Terri Dorn, have chosen careers in the Military Police Corps because all jobs in the field are open to women (34 of 171 soldiers in Dorn's company are female) -- and it is the closest a woman can get to serving in the infantry.

Women MPs have engaged in combat operations before, in Panama in 1989, in the first Gulf War in 1991 and in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, when the peace in what became a peacekeeping mission was still taking root. But their missions were short-lived, and they were designed to support conventional combat troops.

In contrast to those previous deployments, the military police are in Iraq for the long haul and they're in the thick of the action. The Army faces a low-intensity counterinsurgency campaign without front lines, in which troops are being asked to move back and forth between peacekeeping and combat. MP companies, with their heavy complements of women, are often performing exactly the same mission as all-male combat units. And the MPs have become the units of choice for many commanders, given their infantry-like capabilities and the extra training they receive in policing and stability operations.

When mounted patrols from the 82nd Airborne Division move through Fallujah, the machine gunners standing in Humvee turrets are all male. When military police companies conduct identical patrols throughout Iraq -- in Baghdad, Tikrit and Karbala, to name just a few -- the gunners are quite often women.

Twenty-three military police have been killed in Iraq, including one woman, Pfc. Rachel K. Bosveld, 19, of Waupun, Wis., who died Oct. 26 in Abu Ghraib.

The equality women have achieved in the military police manifests itself in a freedom of thought that defies easy description. Ask gunners and their commanders whether they think it is time to scrap the ban on women in combat units, and the answers are varied as the women themselves.

Dorn, who took part in a special Ranger training group as an ROTC cadet at Louisiana State University, isn't sure America is ready to make the leap. In fact, she believes one of the reasons women MPs have effectively broken through the ground combat barrier is that Congress doesn't fully realize all they now do.

One of Dorn's soldiers, Pvt. Tracie Sanchez, 30, an MP machine gunner and mother of four, is more impatient. "It's time," says Sanchez, who fought with Broadwell during the Oct. 16 firefight. "If we're here fighting in Iraq, we can go anywhere." Sanchez's face is peppered with 15 pieces of shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.

As she spoke last week, she was preparing to return to Fort Campbell, Ky., for further surgery to remove the metal fragments. Her husband, Atilano, is taking care of their children, ages 12, 10, 7 and 4. But once she heals from the operation, Sanchez says, she will rejoin her company in Iraq.

"It was my turn to serve the country and protect our children," says Sanchez. "They're worried. I know they're worried. My 4-year-old, she doesn't understand what is going on. But my 12-year-old understands everything that's going on. He knows I'm strong, taking care of myself."

Where the Action Is

Broadwell isn't quite so resolute. The MPs appealed to her, she says, because they get close to the action. And because the training they receive could help her fulfill her ultimate ambition, becoming a homicide detective.

But the real reason she chose the Army over North Texas was the chance it offered a suburban girl from Dallas to see the world and get a taste of adventure.

Broadwell says she was an average kid in high school. "I won't say I was one of the popular kids in my school and I won't say I was one of the nerdy ones. I fit right in the middle."

Her grades were pretty good, she says, until she got a car and found, not all that surprisingly, that she was not making it to school with regularity. There were just too many temptations for a teenager into horror movies, rap, country, hip-hop, the Dallas Cowboys and "Friends."

When she graduated from high school in the spring of 2002, she went to work as a receptionist for an office machine company. Adventure, it wasn't. By last fall, she was at the Army recruiter's office, signing on the dotted line. Her mom, Jeanette Salomon, a paralegal, and her stepdad, Al Salomon, a computer specialist for Americredit, were proud of what she'd done.

"Because I made the decision to do it," she says.

Who would have thought at the time she'd end up in Iraq? Certainly not her mother.

"She worried about me riding my bike to school, crossing main roads, staying out late," Broadwell says.

Becoming a combat machine gunner took the worry factor up a notch. "A big notch," she allows.

Attacked

The firefight was unexpected, like so many engagements in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Kim S. Orlando, commander of the 716th Military Police Battalion, parent unit of the 194th Military Police Company, had come to Karbala that day to review intelligence indicating that tensions in the city were surging, following a shootout between religious factions four days earlier.

Orlando, 43, of Nashville, was riding along on a routine patrol through Karbala when he and soldiers in three Humvees saw dozens of heavily armed guards for Sheik Mahmoud Hassani standing near the sheik's compound on either side of Highway 9.

Hassani, a Shiite religious leader who had recently moved to Karbala from Najaf and set up a headquarters there, was not enamored of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The Americans had already had run-ins with his men and told them they could not carry arms on the street.

But here they were again, in open defiance of the weapons ban. The Americans, led by Orlando, stopped their vehicles, got out and started walking toward the Iraqis. One of them motioned for the Americans to lay down their weapons before coming any closer.

As the Iraqi motioned, he started to swing his AK-47 into firing position, according to 1st Sgt. Troy Wallen, and either that Iraqi or another one fired a shot. Orlando was hit almost immediately and fell to the ground.

"Then all hell broke loose," says Wallen, who was standing next to Orlando. In retrospect, it seems like a well-planned ambush, given the large number of Iraqis on both sides of the highway firing from rooftops, storefronts and alleys.

"That one individual decided he wanted to fight that night," Wallen said. "We outgunned them -- that's the only way we got out of there." If Broadwell and her comrades "hadn't fired that night, none of us would have made it out."

Orlando didn't. He died on his way to the hospital, the highest-ranking officer killed by hostile fire in Iraq.

When the fighting erupted, Broadwell was part of a three-truck patrol a short distance away. Their radios crackled with a call for help, and her patrol arrived on the scene within three minutes and drove smack into the middle of the killing zone.

Lt. Guerrero jumped out of his Humvee, almost into the arms of Iraqis firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at his convoy. Before they could shoot him, Guerrero heard short, controlled bursts from Broadwell's machine gun. The Iraqis ducked for cover.

Since Broadwell wasn't quite tall enough to see through the weapon's sight, she was gauging the accuracy of her fire with tracer rounds -- every fifth bullet in an M-249's ammunition belt ignites a phosphoric compound that leaves a luminescent trail to help gunners see where they are firing.

She remembers feeling terrified, but somehow fighting through it and "walking tracer rounds," she says, into her targets.

Somehow, no rounds or shrapnel hit Guerrero, down on the street, or Broadwell, up in the Humvee's turret, although she badly bruised her back after being thrown back in the turret after explosions hit the front of her vehicle.

Guerrero credits Broadwell with saving his life. "She was up there doing what we trained her to do as a gunner," he said. "She kept their heads down."

"She was on top of it," adds Pfc. Jonathan Rape, who was driving their vehicle that night. "If she were two inches taller, it would have helped, but you couldn't expect anything more. All I could hear was that SAW [squad automatic weapon] going off. She seemed so calm. It was three- to five-shot bursts, like she was taught. That told us she wasn't freaking out and holding the trigger down and spraying. She covered the whole right side of our truck."

Tracie Sanchez, the mother of four who was a gunner on the patrol Orlando was riding with, never got off a shot. As soon as the firing started, a round cracked her Kevlar helmet; then a grenade went off a few feet away from her truck, knocking her out of the turret. She collapsed inside the vehicle and credits her driver, Spec. Woodrow Lyell, with treating her wounds and, more important, calming her down.

Out on the street, a combat medic, 25-year-old Sgt. Misty Frazier of Hayden Lake, Idaho, found herself dodging bullets and running from wounded soldier to wounded soldier in a way she can hardly believe in retrospect. "That's the first time I had ever heard gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades go off that close, knowing they were shooting at us," she said. "I was very lucky."

The final woman in action that night, Spec. Corrie Jones, 27, of Shreveport, La., pulled up as part of a three-vehicle patrol to back up Broadwell's patrol, which she could see up ahead in the middle of the "kill zone." She began firing at the Iraqi attackers.

The battle soon ended. But in a moment, she had resolved the question that haunts soldiers who have yet to experience combat: How will they react under fire? "I don't think it's something anybody knows," she says. Now, she adds, "I know how strong I am."

For two days afterward, Broadwell couldn't sleep. She couldn't eat. "All I could do," she says, "was sit back and cry." She still has dreams about the firefight, not because she froze in battle, but because she didn't freeze. She knows she shot and killed at least one Iraqi, possibly more. Her commanders believe she and her fellow MPs killed more than 20 Iraqis during the battle.

"That was something I never thought I would have to do," Broadwell says. "I never thought I would have to take somebody's life, but I had to. It was kind of a shock. I wish there was something we could have done differently, but there was nothing we could have done."

V for Valor

Broadwell calls her mom now three or four times a week on a satellite phone that costs $1.50 a minute. "I tell her, 'Everything is all right, stop worrying so much,' but she doesn't listen," Broadwell says. "That's what a mom does with her little girl."

The care packages from home come regularly. On patrol, Broadwell carries a plastic bag full of Mom's bounty: M&Ms, Combos and Pop-Tarts, a disposable camera, and a stack of photographs of her family, her friends and her three little dogs.

When her eyes aren't scanning the rooflines and the storefronts of Karbala, she shoots pictures for her mom of Iraq's brown and battered landscape. During one recent call home, her mother recounted how one of her old friends from high school had dropped by the house recently and marveled at her heroics. "He said, 'I can't believe little Teresa is in Iraq,' " Broadwell says.

For her role in the Oct. 16 firefight, Broadwell was awarded the Bronze Star with V for Valor. Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, pinned it on her uniform, along with the Purple Heart, in a recent memorial ceremony honoring Lt. Col. Orlando and two others killed during the firefight, Staff Sgt. Joseph P. Bellavia, 28, of Wakefield, Mass., and Cpl. Sean R. Grilley, 24, of San Bernardino, Calif. Broadwell was close friends with both men.

Capt. Dorn recalls how Broadwell stood in the front row and cried the whole time. But Wallen, the unit's 1st sergeant, corrects her. "The whole damn unit did," he says.

After the ceremony, Broadwell took her Bronze Star and sent it to her mother back in Dallas. "It's for her to hang on to," Broadwell says, "until I get back."

Pvt. Teresa Broadwell, a military police machine gunner, kept her cool in her first taste of combat, and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Teresa Broadwell won a Bronze Star for valor during the Karbala firefight. "I never thought I would have to take somebody's life, but I had to."Soldiers pay last respects next to the helmet and rifle of Army Lt. Col. Kim S. Orlando during a memorial ceremony. Orlando, of Nashville., Tenn., was killed in an Oct. 16 firefight at Karbala.