The Silver Star is currently the third-highest award for valor in combat. The decoration is given to those that exhibit exemplary courage in the face of the enemy. For reference, there are only three women in history that have garnered the honor. The first woman since WWII to earn this prestigious medal did so by directly engaging in combat with the enemy.
When Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester joined the military in 2001, neither she nor anyone else would have guessed that she would be the second woman to be awarded the Silver Star. Hester was assigned to 617th Military Police Company, National Guard, Richmond, KY. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened right before Hester was shipped off to basic training. Soon after Hester completed training in 2004, she deployed to Iraq.
Hester and her team ran convoys to clear an area of IEDs and ensure safe passage. 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." Even though women, at the time, were banned from combat positions, some engaged in and witnessed combat. Hester's experience proves that everyone has the possibility of engaging in combat.
On one particular convoy, in Baghdad, the Humvee ahead of Hester was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Explosions and gunshots rang out while Hester followed her squad leader, Sgt. Timothy Nein, as they positioned themselves in front of a trench and fired back. After 45 minutes of taking enemy fire, the ordeal had ended.
Although three of Hester's team members were injured, all of them survived the firefight. Hester and Nein received Silver Stars for their actions that saved their whole squad from insurgent attack.
Women are still gaining ground in the arena of combat positions, and Hester wants to be clear that her actions had nothing to do with her sex. She states, "I'm honored to even be considered, much less awarded, the medal," Hester told the American Forces Press Service. "It really doesn't have anything to do with being a female. It's about the duties I performed that day as a soldier."