Women in Combat: A Story of the 617th MP Company

Guest Post by Daniel Slone

Women in Combat? While We’re on the Subject…

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s recent announcement that the Department of Defense would rescind its rule barring women from “direct combat” positions promptly rekindled the debate on the whole topic that has surged and ebbed off and on for about a decade now. Starting with PFC Jessica Lynch, the supply specialist with the 507th Maintenance Company who was captured on 23 March 2003 in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom when her misdirected convoy was ambushed in Nasiriyah, it quickly became clear that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would respect neither traditional battle lines nor gender. Females were routinely shot at and blown up, and I remember meeting several female MPs on the main supply routes through our sector of northwest Baghdad in 2005.

women in combat

Women in Combat

I’m not going to get into the whole “women in combat” debate. (Even that terminology is a bit loaded semantically; plenty of women have already been “in combat.”) Maybe I will later, if someone makes a policy decision I think warrants my two cents (and actually with inflation it’s only about a cent and a half these days). Instead, I’d like to talk a little history. I’d like to remind everyone about one of those women who was indeed routinely shot at and blown up, and rose to the occasion.

SGT Leigh Ann Hester was an MP with the 617th Military Police Company of the Kentucky Army National Guard who, as it happens, was deployed to Iraq around the same time I was there. As an MP she had a mission very typical for the military police in Iraq, which was to act as sort of a “highway patrol.” The “landowners”—that is, the units who controlled a given sector or area of responsibility (AOR)—were responsible for among other things conducting regular route clearance patrols. In theory route clearance meant rolling the main roads in your sector and looking for IEDs. In practice, since much of Baghdad resembled a poorly-managed landfill at that time and IEDs are devilishly easy to hide, it meant running the roads to see whether some insurgent would try to blow you up. (Boom. “Found one!”)

The military police would patrol the routes irrespective of sector, however. They also escorted convoys, which is what SGT Hester’s unit was doing on 20 March 2005 when at least 34 insurgents ambushed the one in their care. SGT Hester and her squad leader quickly exited the kill zone and flanked the insurgent position to block their withdrawal. They then began the process of clearing the enemy-occupied trench system, which doesn’t rank very high on the list of pleasant things to do.

SGT Hester personally killed three insurgents at close range. All told, her unit killed 27 insurgents, wounded six, and captured one. For their actions, SGT Hester and her squad leader, SSG Timothy Nein, were awarded the Silver Star.

She thus became the first female soldier to win the Silver Star since World War II, when a few Army nurses were awarded the decoration for evacuating wounded from a hospital under enemy fire. She was the first one to receive it for engaging the enemy in direct combat, period. (Since then a female medic serving in Afghanistan has also earned the Silver Star.) If you’re not already aware, the Silver Star is America’s third-highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.

She was not the only female recognized for her actions that day, either. SPC Ashley Pullen, a driver with the unit, was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device. (The Bronze Star can be awarded for either valor or meritorious service.) Pullen had provided suppressive fire and also exposed herself to enemy fire in the process of rendering medical aid to wounded soldiers.

I don’t put these stories out there to make a point. I merely think that the actions of SGT Hester and her comrades (SSG Nein’s Silver Star was upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross in 2007) deserve some remembrance, and given current events I find it appropriate to recall the actions of the 617th MP Company.

What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comment section below. Thank you.

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3 thoughts on “Women in Combat: A Story of the 617th MP Company”

  1. A big hoorah for this article. I too, will not get into the whole debate on whether women should be in combat. The only thing I will say is, if they desire to do so, who is anyone to hold them back?

    There have been many women in history who have fought and defended their beliefs and their country. We owe the ones who have fought for safety and freedom of the United States their due respect and honor. This includes those who are not necessarily carrying a rifle, but those who are carrying medical gear or even the ones who are at home praying that the men come home safely.

    Without women, we would not be. Thanks to all women who hold our nation together.

  2. Nice article! With the debate about women in combat you rarely hear anyone get specific and talk about actual events that took place. It’s nice to see someone step aside from politics and just give an example. SGT Hester is sounds like a badass.

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