RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week we're looking at women in the military and how the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed their roles. Pentagon policy officially bans women from direct ground combat, even though in reality modern war means that female troops often end up in places where there is heavy fighting.

Today, NPR's Rachel Martin brings us the story of one soldier who illustrates that contradiction: the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star award for valor.

RACHEL MARTIN: The idea of being a hero doesn't really sit well with Leigh Ann Hester, so having an action figure modeled after her is kind of surreal.

Sergeant LEIGH ANN HESTER (Army National Guard): The action figure doesn't really look a whole lot like me. The box is better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The doll is supposed to be a tribute to Hester, who is a sergeant in the Army National Guard. She received the Silver Star in 2005 for valor during a firefight in Iraq.

So this is you as an action figure.

Sgt. HESTER: Well, I don't see me anywhere. Where is me, 'cause that's not me.

MARTIN: Hester has had a hard time seeing herself in any of the hero stuff that's been made of her - and there has been a lot - paintings, posters. There's even a wax version of her on permanent exhibit at the Army Women's Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia.

When Hester enlisted with the National Guard in the spring of 2001, she was selling shoes at the local Shoe Pavilion near her home in Nashville, Tennessee. September 11th happened right before she left for basic training.

Sgt. HESTER: You know, our drill sergeants were telling us, you know, you're going to be the ones to go to war and, you know, National Guard is going to go just as much or more than, you know, active Army, and this and that.

MARTIN: In July 2004, she was ordered to Iraq and she remembers saying goodbye to her mom at the airport.

Sgt. HESTER: The day that we flew out, that was a tearjerker. Who sings that song?

(Singing) Leaving on a jet plane.

(Speaking) We were all singing that as soon as we got on the plane and crying and singing at the same time, you know.

MARTIN: On the ground in Iraq, Hester was assigned to a military police unit. The job was to protect critical supply routes.

Sgt. HESTER: Basically we'd go out in our Humvees and we would clear the route for IEDs or insurgents before the convoys would start coming through.

MARTIN: And roughly once a week, her team would actually escort a convoy on these roads.

Now, according to the Pentagon's policy, women are not allowed to be assigned to units where their primary mission is to, quote, "engage in direct combat on the ground." Leigh Ann 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.

Sgt. HESTER: You know, I can't tell you how many times, you know, our squad got blown up. I mean, it's more than I can count, probably. I mean, it was nothing for us to get shot at, you know, every other day or more.

MARTIN: And one day in particular.

Sgt. HESTER: I think it was a Sunday morning.

MARTIN: About 9:00 a.m., she and her team were taking a convoy on a road east of Baghdad. They got three miles down the road.

Sgt. HESTER: We started hearing gunshots and explosions. And I'm like, oh no, you know, something's going on.

MARTIN: The vehicle in front of her started to turn onto a side road.

Sgt. HESTER: And as soon as they started to make that turn, they got a direct hit with an RPG. Bam. You know, I didn't know. I was like oh God, you know, are they OK?

MARTIN: Three members of Hester's team were shot and wounded. Dozens of insurgents were firing on them. Hester's squad leader, Staff Sergeant Timothy Nein, grabbed her, told her to follow him. They ran toward the insurgents' trench line, took up position and started firing.

Sgt. HESTER: It's not like you see in the movies. They don't like get shot and, like, get blown back five feet. You know, they just take a round and they collapse, so...

MARTIN: 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, at least according to the Pentagon's combat exclusion policy.

Hester and Staff Sergeant Nein were both awarded Silver Stars for their actions that day. Leigh Ann keeps hers in a box up in her closet at home.

Sgt. HESTER: It's a big gold star with a little silver star in the middle. And that's actually the medal that was pinned on me in 2005.

MARTIN: The Silver Star is the third-highest decoration in the U.S. military for valor after the Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. 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. This is a clip from MSNBC.

(Soundbite of MSNBC broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Sergeant Hester leads her squad in a desperate ditch-to-ditch firefight, saving numerous American lives.

MARTIN: So for the past five years, she's had to play hero.

Sgt. HESTER: I have family that always wants to tell the story, and then I get kind of put in a position where, you know, it's like I, you know, have to meet and greet and shake hands. Hey, how you doing? Well, thank you for your service and thank you for everything, you know. It's still kind of - I don't know, it's something that I haven't gotten used to.

MARTIN: Since Hester was awarded the Silver Star, one other woman has received it, a medic in Afghanistan. But Hester was first.

Do you think of yourself as a pioneer, as a model for other women in the military?

Sgt. HESTER: I'd like to think that not that it was me, but that a female was in a firefight-slash-ambush big enough for her actions that, you know, she received a medal.

MARTIN: Hester wasn't looking for a chance to be in direct ground combat, but the fight found her and she stepped up.

Sgt. HESTER: You know, it's just something that happened one day, and you know, I was trained to do what I did, and I did it - I mean unfortunately. So we all lived through that battle.

MARTIN: In 2009, Hester got out of the Army, and for the past couple years she's gone back to her other career as a police officer in a small town in Tennessee, where she lives with her two dogs.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Sgt. HESTER: Come on...

MARTIN: But late last year she started missing Army life and she re-enlisted with the National Guard.

Sgt. HESTER: I'm glad that I took a break. I really am. It made me realize that I really enjoyed being a soldier and that it's something that I missed and, you know, it's something that I'm good at. And I look forward to getting deployed again.

MARTIN: So the Silver Star goes back up in the closet and Leigh Ann Hester goes back to being a soldier.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION we take you back to the 1950s when women in the military weren't trained to fire weapons but they were trained in how to put on lipstick.

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