The two soldiers crept along the trench line, bullets thumping into the dirt around them. One was a lanky family man, 36, with two young sons and a 15-year career at International Paper Co. The other was a petite, single woman, 23, the floor manager at a Nashville shoe store.
Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester handed Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein a grenade. He had the better arm. Nein hurled it at the insurgents, who were crouched in the same trench, firing their AK-47 rifles at the Americans in the early afternoon.
Hester and Nein inched forward, the two recalled, Hester firing her black M-4 assault rifle next to Nein's ear. By the time the soldiers climbed out of the trench, their lips were chapped from the heat, their faces smeared with dirt, and four insurgents lay dead or dying nearby.
"I really don't know who killed who," said Hester, who stands 5-foot-4, speaks with a twang and walks with a swagger. "He could have got three, I could have got one, I don't know. I know for sure I got at least one."
The U.S. military handed out combat citations last week for the March 20 battle, in which a military police squad of two women and eight men from the Kentucky Army National Guard killed 27 insurgents and wounded six in an orchard south of Baghdad. Hester won the Silver Star. She was the first female soldier to receive the award for exceptional valor since World War II and the first ever to be cited for close combat.
This account of the 25-minute firefight, near the town of Salman Pak, is based on interviews with seven squad members and their commanders and a brief video that ends abruptly with the insurgent cameraman's death. The three squad members not interviewed were wounded and are still recovering.
Hester killed at least three enemy combatants, according to her account and the citation, including two in the orchard before she and Nein plunged into the trench together to take on the last insurgents.
The battle occurred immediately before the recent controversy in Congress over the suitability of having women in combat. Hester's squad and commanders derided the debate as insignificant and absurd. "It kind of makes me mad," Hester said. "Women can basically do any job that men can."
"I sit here in amazement that Congress would debate this issue when we've been doing it for so long," said Command Sgt. Major Joseph Shelley of the 18th Military Police Brigade, which oversees Hester's squad.
The squad, called Raven 42, presents a vivid portrait of the diverse American fighting force in Iraq. The squad includes not only women, but also African American and Hispanic soldiers, and others who are nearly twice the age of their comrades.
The military awarded three Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and two army commendation medals to the squad last week. Receiving the Silver Star, along with Hester and Nein, was a platoon medic, Spec. Jason Mike, a 5-foot-9, 250-pound former fullback at Jacksonville University in Florida.
In the middle of the battle, Mike, 22, fired two weapons in opposite directions after three of the four soldiers traveling in his Humvee were struck by bullets, he and other members of the squad recounted.
A Bronze Star was awarded to Spec. Ashley Pullen, a 5-foot-2 1/2-inch Humvee driver from Edmonton, Ky.
Pullen, 21, smiles constantly, occasionally paints her toenails pink and tilts her head back to see over the dashboard of her vehicle. As bullets pelted her Humvee's armored skin that day, Pullen backed up the truck to provide cover for Sgt. Joseph Rivera, 39, who lay bleeding with a stomach wound. Pullen then helped treat Rivera while still under enemy fire.
Capt. Todd Lindner, who commands the 617th Military Police Company, which includes Raven 42, said Hester and Pullen "shouldn't be held up as showpieces for why there should be women in combat. They should be held up as examples of why it's irrelevant."
A 1994 Pentagon policy bars women from serving in units most likely to see ground combat. But many women serve in support units that put them in the same free-fire zones as combat units.
The dangers facing these women became evident Thursday when a suicide car bomber struck a Marine convoy near Fallujah; at least four were killed, including one woman, and 11 of the 13 injured were women. The women were in a support unit.
The 617th Military Police Company is also technically a support unit. Overall, 20 percent of roughly 150 soldiers in the company are women, said Lindner. Back in Kentucky, the unit helps provide garrison security and assistance throughout the state, including crowd control at the Kentucky Derby.
In Iraq, the company protects convoys and conducts round-the-clock patrols on supply routes leading in and out of Baghdad. Since November, Raven 42 has encountered roughly 30 roadside bombs, about two-thirds of which have detonated near the squad, soldiers said. The same week that the squad received its citations, a soldier from the 617th Military Police Company was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
"We're infantry with badges, is the way I like to refer to it," Nein said.
Into the Kill Zone
In interviews, the squad and its commanders described how the battle on March 20 unfolded. Raven 42 was patrolling north near Salman Pak, about 12 miles southeast of Baghdad. A convoy of 30 tractor-trailers passed in the other direction. Nein decided to turn the squad around to shadow the trucks until they were safely out of the area. Squad members were in three Humvees.
Within minutes, the convoy abruptly stopped. Up ahead, Nein, seated in the passenger seat of the first Humvee, could see the half-mile line of trucks suddenly break erratically. Spec. Casey Cooper, in the gunner's hatch, said he could see it, too.
"They're taking fire!" he screamed. "Go! Go!"
The squad's three Humvees roared toward the firefight. Some of the trucks were already in flames. Nein ordered his driver, Sgt. Dustin Morris, to get between the assailants and the convoy.
Morris found an opening between two trailers, and the squad drove through it, emerging in the middle of the kill zone -- where gunfire is most heavily concentrated during an attack.
A blizzard of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades followed.
"Flank 'em down the road!" Nein yelled.
Just ahead was a paved side road. Morris accelerated to make the turn. But before he could, Cooper, exposed in the turret, saw a rocket-propelled grenade coming toward him. "I saw smoke and a black dot," he recalled. "All I had time to say was, 'Oh crap.' "
The projectile exploded on the armored lip above the rear passenger's side window. The Humvee fishtailed and Cooper dropped with a thud into the cab. His limp body lay across the steel platform where he had stood moments before. His head bobbed facedown in the footwell. Nein said he reached back and shook him.
"Coop, are you okay?" he screamed. Cooper didn't move.
"Believing he was dead, I began to climb up on top of him to get up on the weapon," Nein said. Cooper suddenly bolted upright.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," Cooper said he told Nein. He climbed back into the turret.
Incredibly, the Humvee was still running. Morris turned onto the side road. Bullets poured into the grill. Oil spurted up onto the windshield. Morris flipped on the wipers, smearing oil over the thick glass.
He stopped about 200 yards down the road. The second Humvee, with Pullen driving and Hester in the passenger seat, stopped about 50 yards behind. The third Humvee made the turn and stopped just beyond the corner.
Mike, the hulking medic, looked out from the third Humvee. What he saw stunned him, he recalled. About 16 to 20 insurgents lined a trench parallel to the main road. Dozens more were firing from an orchard. Still more lined a trench that ran parallel to the side road.
The ambush was far larger than anything the squad had seen. The third Humvee was parked directly in front of the main trench where many of the insurgents were concentrated.
Nein peered out his window. Lining the side road were seven cars -- BMWs, Caprices, Opel sedans -- the insurgents' escape vehicles. The doors and trunks were open; they apparently planned to take hostages. The Americans later found some of the insurgents were carrying handcuffs.
Nein feared the squad was about to be overrun. Instead of dismounting on the driver's side -- away from the shooting -- he opened the door and walked directly toward the gunfire.
Hester, watching Nein from the second Humvee, did the same.
"I didn't have a choice. I could have climbed over, that's what you're trained to do," Nein said. "But once I knew how many people we were fighting against, it hit me we had to fight back extremely hard."
Nein and Hester, followed by Morris, ducked behind a four-foot berm that overlooked the orchard. Insurgents, many wearing masks and civilian clothes, fired AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and RPK machine guns from behind trees and mounds of dirt.
Nein shot one insurgent in the head as he peeked from behind a tree. Hester trained her "aim point" -- a red dot that fixes the target -- on the chest of an insurgent firing an RPK from behind a knoll.
"I just put that little dot on him and squeezed the trigger," she said. "It hit him and he fell down. I was like, 'Whoa, I just killed somebody.' Before that first one, it was almost like it wasn't real. Now it was for real."
Hester shifted her aim to another insurgent. She pulled the trigger. He fell down.
The most dangerous spot was near the third Humvee, parked overlooking the main trench and in the line of fire of more than a dozen insurgents. Within minutes, three of the Humvee's four occupants had been hit.
Spec. Bryan Mack was struck in the left shoulder. No sooner had Mike bandaged him and put him in the Humvee, Rivera was hit, too, the bullet apparently entering his lower back and exiting through his stomach.
The bullets were now coming from two directions -- not only from the trench but also from a 10-foot berm on the other side of the Humvees. It was only one or two insurgents, but the squad was pinned down. Mike treated Rivera's wound and shoved him underneath the Humvee as far as he could for protection.
Then Spec. William Haynes, in the turret, was hit in the left hand. He fell back into the Humvee, screaming.
He showed his hand to Mike, who recalled he told Haynes to wrap it. As he did, Mike focused on the source of the fire. "I could hear the bullets hitting the Humvee," he said. "They were coming from both directions, both in front and behind."
With the other soldiers out of action, Mike set up an M-249 light machine gun, known as a Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, on the Humvee's trunk. With his right hand, he fired it into the main trench. With his left, he gripped an M-4 assault rifle and shot in the other direction at the insurgent firing from atop the 10-foot berm. He continued shooting both weapons until Haynes had bandaged his hand and resumed fighting.
Cooper informed Nein that the squad was now taking fire from the rear. He said the insurgent appeared to be firing from a dirt plateau just on the other side of the berm. Nein grabbed a grenade, ran at the berm and lobbed it over.
The firing stopped. To make sure he had eliminated the threat, Nein backed up, took a running start and tried to climb the steep berm. Clawing at the dirt with his hands and his rifle, he pulled himself to the top. No one was there.
Pullen ran over to Nein and told him Rivera had been seriously wounded. Nein ordered her to treat him. The fighting was still heavy. Pullen, concerned Rivera was exposed, returned to her truck and backed it up to where Rivera lay on the ground. Pullen recalled she placed a bandage over the wound and applied pressure. Rivera screamed and rocked; he said he couldn't feel his legs. "Think about your son," said Pullen, recalling Rivera had a young boy. "Think about him. Think about anything but this."
The shooting had begun to subside, but with Rivera needing to be evacuated as soon as possible, Nein believed he was running out of time. Below him, in the trench that ran along the side road, four insurgents were still firing up at the squad and then ducking behind a berm.
He looked at Hester, now crouching next to him. "We've got to go in there," he said.
Nein rolled over the berm into the trench, Hester following behind. The trench was uneven, and they took cover in the small spaces. The insurgents, clustered about 30 yards down and spaced five yards apart, poked out their heads and fired their AK-47s in bursts. "I could see the bullets kicking up the dried dirt and I remember thinking, 'I can't believe that's stopping them.' " Nein said.
"We went through there foot by foot," said Hester. "We'd stop every couple meters or so, two or three meters, and lay down fire. I'd be firing over his shoulder."
The soldiers tossed grenades as they moved closer. Hester saw one insurgent about 15 yards away. She lobbed a grenade toward the figure, then pressed her body into the side of the trench to avoid the blast. "I saw one of them go down," she said.
Soon, one insurgent was still firing. Nein lobbed another grenade. The shooting stopped.
Hester and Nein climbed out the trench. Bodies littered the orchard and the trenches. The only sounds were the cries of the wounded.
Other units arrived. Mike and Pullen helped transport the wounded to a makeshift landing zone for evacuation by helicopters.
Hester sat down and stared into space. She said she didn't feel like a hero, only that "I did my job." In some ways, she's still staring.
"I think about March 20 at least a couple times a day, every day, and I probably will for the rest of my life," she said last week. "It's taken its toll. Every night I'm lucky if I don't see the picture of it in my mind before I go to sleep, and then, even if I don't, I'm dreaming about what we did."
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.