Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester fought her way through an enemy ambush south of Baghdad, killing three insurgents with her M-4 rifle to save fellow soldiers' lives -- and yesterday became the first woman since World War II to win the Silver Star medal for valor in combat.
The 23-year-old retail store manager from Bowling Green, Ky., won the award for skillfully leading her team of military police soldiers in a counterattack after about 50 insurgents ambushed a supply convoy they were guarding near Salman Pak on March 20.
The medal, rare for any soldier, underscores the growing role in combat of U.S. female troops in Iraq's guerrilla war, where tens of thousands of American women have served, 36 have been killed and 285 wounded, according to Pentagon figures.
After insurgents hit the convoy with a barrage of fire from machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Hester "maneuvered her team through the kill zone into a flanking position where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M203 rounds," according to the Army citation accompanying the Silver Star.
"She then cleared two trenches with her squad leader where she engaged and eliminated three AIF [anti-Iraqi forces] with her M4 rifle. Her actions saved the lives of numerous convoy members," the citation stated.
Hester, a varsity softball and basketball player in high school, joined the Army in 2001 and was assigned to the Kentucky National Guard's 617th Military Police Company, based in Richmond, Ky.
A female driver with the unit, Spec. Ashley J. Pullen of Danville, Ky., also won the Bronze Star for her bravery. Pullen laid down fire to suppress insurgents and then "exposed herself to heavy AIF fires in order to provide medical assistance to her critically injured comrades," saving several lives, her citation said.
Six other soldiers with Hester's unit won awards for defeating the ambush, leaving 27 insurgents dead, six wounded and one captured. They include Hester's squad leader, Staff. Sgt. Timothy F. Nein, who also won the Silver Star.