Part 2 in a series.
The idea of being a hero doesn't really sit well with Leigh Ann Hester, so having an action figure modeled after her is, in a word, surreal. The doll, decked out in Army fatigues, an M4 rifle and small Oakley sunglasses, is supposed to be a tribute to Hester, a sergeant in the Army National Guard who received the Silver Star in 2005 for valor during a firefight in Iraq. "The action figure doesn't really look a whole lot like me," she says. "The box is better."
Hester has had a hard time seeing herself in any of the hero stuff that has been made of her — and there has been a lot: paintings, posters, even a wax figure on permanent exhibit at the Army Women's Museum in Fort Lee, Va.
When Hester enlisted with the National Guard in the spring of 2001, she had been selling shoes at the local Shoe Pavilion near her home in Nashville, Tenn. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened right before she left for basic training. She remembers the drill sergeants telling her and the other recruits that they would be the ones to go to war. And that's exactly what happened. In July 2004, Hester was ordered to Iraq.
On the ground in Baghdad, Hester was assigned to a military police unit; the job was to protect critical supply routes.
"Basically, we would go out in our Humvees and we would clear the route for [improvised explosive devices] or insurgents before the convoys would start coming through," Hester says.
Roughly once a week, her team would actually escort a convoy on these roads.
According to the Pentagon's policy, women are not allowed to be assigned to units where their primary mission is to "engage in direct combat on the ground." Hester wasn't in an artillery or infantry unit. She was a military police officer in the National Guard assigned to protect convoys.
But in counterinsurgencies like Afghanistan and Iraq, a routine patrol can turn into ground combat in an instant. And in Hester's case, getting shot at was the routine. "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."
She remembers one day in particular. It was a Sunday morning around 9 a.m. She and her team were taking a convoy on a road east of Baghdad. They got 3 miles down the road and started hearing gunshots and explosions. The vehicle in front of hers started to turn onto a side road. "As soon as they started to make that turn, they got a direct hit with [a rocket propelled grenade]. Bam! I was like 'Oh God, are they OK?' " Hester recalls.
Three members of Hester's team were shot and wounded. Dozens of insurgents were firing on them. Hester's squad leader, Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, grabbed her and told her to follow him. They ran toward the insurgents' trench line, took up position and started firing.
"It's not like you see in the movies," she says. "They don't, like, get shot and get blown back 5 feet. They just take a round, and they collapse."
The whole thing lasted about 45 minutes. When it was over, everyone in her unit had survived.
By any definition, it was a major firefight — direct ground combat — exactly what women are NOT supposed to engage in, according to the Pentagon's combat exclusion policy.
Hester and Nein were both awarded Silver Stars for their actions that day. Hester keeps hers in a box in her closet at home. It's a big gold star with a little silver star in the middle of it.
The Silver Star is the third-highest decoration in the U.S. military for valor. (The Medal of Honor is the highest, followed by the Distinguished Service Cross.) A handful of Army nurses were awarded Silver Stars back in World War II for evacuating a hospital under enemy fire. Hester is the first woman to win the award since then — and the only woman to get it for engaging in direct combat with the enemy. When it happened, she got a whole lot of attention. There were network TV interviews and trips to the nation's capital.
So for the past five years, she has had to play hero. "I have family that always want to tell the story, and I get put in a position where I need to shake hands," she says, with people who thank her for her service. "I don't know, it's something I haven't gotten used to."
Since Hester was awarded the Silver Star, a woman serving as a medic in Afghanistan has also received it. But Hester was first. When asked if she thinks of herself as a pioneer, she says, "I'd like to think that, you know, not that it was me, but that a female was in a firefight-slash-ambush — big enough for her actions — that she received a medal."
Hester wasn't looking for a chance to be in direct ground combat, but the fight found her and she stepped up.
"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.
In 2009, Hester got out of the service. For the past two years, she has gone back to her other career as a police officer in a small town in Tennessee, where she lives with her two dogs.
But late last year, she started missing military life and re-enlisted with the National Guard. "I'm glad that I took a break," Hester says. "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."
So the Silver Star goes back up in the closet. And Leigh Ann Hester goes back to being a soldier.