March 20, 2005. Women’s History Month. To Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester of the Kentucky National Guard, it is a normal day. A military policeman stationed in Iraq, she and her convoy suddenly come under fire from Iraqi insurgents. Sergeant Hester is about to earn the first Silver Star awarded to a female soldier for close combat in the face of the enemy.
Who was she? If you’re looking for a special story like Ruby Bradley or Deborah Sampson, look somewhere else. Sergeant Hester was - is - just a person. A soldier who joined the National Guard at the age of 17, Leigh had been measuring people's feet at a Shoe Pavilion near Nashville, Tennessee. She only learned about the 9/11 attacks during Basic Training. Her Drill Sergeants told her that she and other recruits would be the ones going to war. Hardly a good introduction to the Army.
Leigh Ann Hester was assigned to the 617th Military Police Company of the Kentucky National Guard, not exactly a unit you’d consider a major combat element. Hester was an MP – and despite what you may have read in Jack Reacher novels, MPs are not by default the most badass element of the military. To most soldiers, MPs are universally despised as the Niedermeyers of the military base, the tattle-tales. Most soldiers’ encounters with MPs are of the negative variety, usually involving a speeding ticket or lecture.
MPs deploy too. In July 2004, the 617th deployed to Iraq, and Hester went with it as a Sergeant. The duties of MPs in Iraq were usually pretty simple: keep internal security on Coalition bases and guard convoys. This last bit is less appealing than it sounds if you’ve ever heard of IEDs or know much about the war in Iraq. The truth is that the convoys ran into ambushes all the time, and Sergeant Hester, though not some sort of Ellen Ripley badass, was way more ready for action than she had any right to be.
March 20, 2005. 26 miles southeast of Baghdad. The struggle to maintain supply to and from Baghdad, with supply lines stretching down to the Persian Gulf, was real. Insurgents constantly sought to disrupt this supply line and made any convoy dangerous. Most truck and tractor-trailer convoys were usually accompanied by Humvees, gun trucks with (ideally) light armor and a heavy machine gun. On March 20, Sergeant Hester was part of a provisional unit assigned to convoy duty, escorting a combined Army and civilian supply convoy up the main highway to Baghdad. She was in command of one Humvee, part of 2nd Squad, 4th Platoon of the 617th.
SGT Hester’s boss, Staff Sergeant Timothy Nein, had been leading the patrol for some time. On this day, he called up to the incoming convoy that he was ready to shadow them all the way to Baghdad. This platoon of MPs was ready for action, having vigorously trained and meticulously prepared for the attack they knew was to come, as well as memorizing the areas they typically patrolled. When they met up with the convoy, they were ready for whatever they faced.
As they passed an intersection, the platoon was ambushed by a pack of guerrillas. With RPGs and machine guns, the guerrillas disabled the convoy’s lead vehicle and forced the whole column to halt. With multiple civilian and Army vehicles under fire, Sergeant Hester’s truck and the other gun trucks began to return fire. As the insurgents crippled the first Humvee, Sergeant Hester and Sergeant Nein dismounted and observed the situation. With the convoy blocked by the lead vehicle and under fire, there was no route for immediate escape. They had to take the fight to the enemy.
Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, former cashier at Shoe Pavilion Nashville, began laying down fire with her M4 Carbine. As an insurgent trained his fire on one of her soldiers, she shot and killed him with accurate fire. Nein pushed forward, determined to push the insurgents back, and Hester grabbed a rifle with an M203 grenade launcher and followed him. They squared up. As Nein advanced, Hester fired grenades at the enemy over his shoulder. When they realized they were too close for the grenade launcher to have an effect, Sergeant Nein and Sergeant Hester both began pitching grenades with one hand and laying down rifle fire with the other, back to back.
Nein and Hester blasted their way across a dirt barrier and down a trench line, throwing back the insurgents. During this action, Leigh Ann Hester killed three enemies with her M4. As they reached the end of the trench, they yelled at their trucks to cease fire over the radio. Even as they did so, one final insurgent popped out, leveled his rifle, and fired directly at Nein. As the bullets flew around him, Nein was amazed that he wasn’t shot until he realized that Hester had shot the insurgent before he could draw a bead. With this final blow, the Sunday ambush was over.
Nein and Hester returned to their trucks and escorted the convoy the remainder of the way to Baghdad. Except for this firefight where two Sergeants had, well, just started blasting and cleared an entire trench of insurgents to make the way for their convoy, it was just a normal day.
It wasn’t a normal day for history, though. Most history is made by normal people who do abnormal things.
Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester killed, at minimum, three insurgents during the brief battle for the convoy, and her actions as well as Sergeant Nein’s probably saved many lives. She and Sergeant Nein were both awarded the Silver Star for their bravery on March 20, 2005.
Sergeant Hester’s was the first Silver Star awarded to a woman since World War II, and the first ever awarded to a woman for close combat in the face of the enemy.
Hester was surprised when she learned that she was being considered for the Silver Star. “I'm honored to even be considered, much less awarded, the medal," she said. Even though the historical nature of the award was important, she didn’t dwell on it. “It really doesn't have anything to do with being a female," she said. "It's about the duties I performed that day as a soldier."
Sergeant Hester, now a Sergeant First Class in the National Guard and a police officer in Nashville, seems to denigrate her own service sometimes. "I can't tell you how many times our squad got blown up," she says. "I mean, it's more than I can count, probably. I mean, it was nothing for us to get shot at every other day or more."
Her fame is unusual to her. There have been paintings, posters, even a wax figure on exhibit at the Women’s History Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia. There’s even an action figure decked out in desert combat uniform, an M4, and sunglasses, that she complains doesn’t look a lot like her.
When asked about the battle where she earned her decoration, she says, "You know, it's just something that happened one day, and I was trained to do what I did, and I did it. We all lived through that battle," she says.
Hester briefly left the Army in 2009 – and for two years, she stayed out, serving as a police officer and living with her dogs. But something made her go back. "I'm glad that I took a break. I really am. It made me realize that I really enjoyed being a soldier, and it's something that I missed and it's something that I'm good at. And I look forward to getting deployed again." In 2011, Hester had rejoined the National Guard, and has since been to Afghanistan, as well as to the Virgin Islands as hurricane relief.
Extraordinary actions are often performed by ordinary people. If we ever ask ourselves if women can serve in combat, we can look to the example of Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester. Not a hero, not a superstar, just a soldier.
We are what we choose to be.
Book Recommendation: For women in the Iraq War, check out Kirsten Holmstedt's Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2007).