Meet Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman to be awarded a Silver Star since World War II and the first to be recognized for valor in close combat.

Nearly eighteen years ago, a squad of military police consisting of eight men and two women were escorting a supply convoy in three Humvees from logistics support area (LCA) Anaconda to convoy support center (CSC) Scania outside of Baghdad, Iraq, when approximately 50 insurgents ambushed the 30-truck convoy.

With little concern for her own safety, Sgt. Hester sprung into action leading her team into a counterattack.

Raven 42B Team Leader

Hester, born on 12 January 1982, was a sergeant in the 617th Military Police (MP) Company—a National Guard unit based in Richmond, Kentucky— when she was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) after joining the US Army in 2001.

On 20 March 2005, Hester was acting as team leader for RAVEN 42B in the 617th Military Police Company, and her troops were shadowing a sustainment convoy, including “30 third-country national (TCN) semi-tractor trailers with a three-vehicle squad size escort, call sign Stallion 33, traveling from LSA (logistics support area) Anaconda to CSC (convoy support center) Scania,” near Baghdad when insurgents ambushed them. Dozens of Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF) overwhelmed the US troops with heavy fire from AK-47 assault rifles, RPK machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Taking advantage of the nearby irrigation ditches and an orchard, the insurgents were almost invisible and had the upper hand in the first minutes of the firefight. According to her Silver Star citation, the AIF intent was to “destroy the convoy, to inflict numerous casualties, and to kidnap several TCN drivers or US Soldiers.”

Camp Liberty, Iraq, 2005
Sgt. Hester and five other soldiers stand in front of Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, Commanding General of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq,  as he addresses them during the awards ceremony. (Image source: DVIDS)

Quick on their feet, Hester and her team positioned themselves between the convoy and the AIFs, before strategically flanking the insurgents to cut off their escape route. Hester led the assault on the remaining enemies on foot, using her M203 grenade launcher to good effect. Her squad leader, Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, cleared out the remaining two trenches alongside Hester, where the female soldier killed three more insurgents with her weapon.

When the dust settled after a 25-minute firefight, Hester and her squad had killed 27 insurgents, wounded six, and held one captive. Meanwhile, only three convoy members were injured, and the supplies remained secured.

First Woman To Earn the Award for Actions Against the Enemy

Three months later, the 23-year-old sergeant was in a military awards ceremony with fellow soldiers who also showed gallantry during that fateful day. Hester earned the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration for valor in combat, along with Nein (later upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross) and platoon medic Specialist Jason Mike.

Silver Star
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Three more squad members received Bronze Stars, while two earned Army Commendation Medals.

Below is the snippet of Hester’s Silver Star citation awarded on 20 March 2005.

The President of the United States of America, authorized by an Act of Congress on July 9, 1918 (amended by an act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, United States Army, for exceptionally valorous achievement during combat operations in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, on 20 March 2005, in Iraq.

Sergeant Hester’s heroic actions in Iraq contributed to the overwhelming success of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq mission. While serving as the Team Leader for RAVEN 42B in the 617th Military Police Company, 503d Military Police Battalion (Airborne), 18th Military Police Brigade, Sergeant Hester led her soldiers on a counterattack of anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF) who were ambushing a convoy with heavy AK-47 assault rifle fire, PRK machine gun fire, and rocket-propelled grenades. Sergeant Hester maneuvered her team through the kill zone into a flanking position where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M-203 rounds. She then cleared two trenches with her Squad Leader, where she engaged and eliminated 3 AIF with her M-4 rifle. Her actions saved the lives of numerous convoy members. Sergeant Hester’s bravery is in keeping with the finest traditions of military heroism and reflects distinct credit upon herself, the 503d Military Police Battalion (Airborne), the 18th Military Police Brigade, and the United States Army.

In a later interview, Hester expressed her surprise at being considered for the Silver Star, saying, “I’m honored to even be considered, much less awarded, the medal.”

Hester is now a significant icon of military history as the first woman to earn the Silver Star Medal since World War II and the first for valor in actions against the enemy. However, when asked about women in combat, the sergeant said that “it doesn’t [really] have anything to do with being a female,” adding that what she did that day was part of her duty as a soldier.

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“I’m just another soldier doing his/her job. We’re all equal. There’s no difference in gender here in MP Corp, we’re all doing each other’s job … We have female squad leaders, female team leaders, female gunners, female drivers—it’s all the same job. We’re all soldiers of the United States Army,” Hester explained, as seen in the video below.

Upon returning stateside, Hester went back to her service with the Tennessee Army National Guard before taking a brief break in 2009 to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a police officer. She rejoined the National Guard shortly after in late 2010. Four years later, in 2014, Hester spent a lengthy tour of duty in Afghanistan, where she was promoted to sergeant first class.

Later, SFC Hester joined the international humanitarian relief effort following the deadly Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck the northeastern Caribbean in September 2017, where she provided law enforcement support to the US Virgin Islands Police.

She remains in the Army to this day, acting as a First Sergeant.