For Gallantry in Action
Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the 617th Military Police Company stands at parade rest after receiving the Silver Star during an awards ceremony at Camp Liberty, Iraq, in 2005. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jeremy D. Crisp

For Gallantry in Action

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester didn’t see it coming. First, she heard gunshots and explosions in the distance. Then a rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle directly in front of hers, wounding three members of Hester’s squad.

It was March 2005, at the height of the war in Iraq. At the time, Pentagon policy forbade women from serving in units whose primary mission was to engage in direct combat; Hester was assigned to the National Guard’s 617th Military Police Company, tasked with protecting supply routes in and out of Baghdad. “It was nothing for us to get shot at every other day or more,” she told NPR.

On a Sunday morning, about three miles east of the city, Hester and her team were surrounded and fired on by dozens of insurgents. Exposed, she and her squad leader, Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, jumped out of their truck and ran toward the insurgents, dropping behind a trench line. For 45 minutes, they exchanged fire at close range; together, Hester and her fellow soldiers killed 27 insurgents, wounded six more and took one captive. Every member of her unit survived.

For their actions, she and Nein were awarded the Silver Star – and as the first woman to receive the medal since World War II and the only one to directly engage the enemy in combat, Hester became an overnight hero.

The Silver Star is the third-highest award for valor, behind the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross (the Army equivalent of the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross and the Coast Guard Cross). Originally called the Citation Star, it was first established by Congress in 1918 to recognize “gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.”

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It was during the Great War that three women received this award: Jane Rignel, Linnie Leckrone and Irene Robar, Army nurses serving near the front lines in France. As was customary, the women held no rank and were referred to only as “Miss” or “Nurse.”

Rignel, a graduate of Columbia University Presbyterian School of Nursing, joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1917. She was the chief nurse commanding 22 others when their unit, Mobile Hospital No. 2, was barraged by artillery late in the night July 15, 1918, near Bussy-le-Château. Mobile hospitals followed combat units to their battle locations, setting up surgical and aid stations to provide critical support within hours of injury. Two of Rignel’s triage and surgical areas were severely damaged and five patients killed by direct hits of artillery, but Rignel continued working, leading eight operating teams through the night to save 75 men. The next morning, the unit was forced to move patients underground to avoid more artillery fire. Rignel was awarded the Citation Star for her courage and leadership.

She returned to her native New York after the war and married a surgeon. During World War II, Rignel served with the American Red Cross New York chapter as assistant director of the Nurse’s Aide Corps. She died in 1977 at 92, leaving behind four children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Linnie Leckrone and Irene Robar served together in the Army Nurse Corps’ Shock Team No. 134. On July 29, 1918, near Château-Thierry, the 32nd Division’s 127th Field Hospital came under artillery fire. The two women refused to leave their stations and worked furiously to aid wounded soldiers who had lost a significant amount of blood. They were recent graduates of Northwestern University, and had joined 10,000 American women in volunteering to serve overseas. Like Hester and Rignel, their mission took them into the combat zone, though official policy would largely keep women out of ground combat roles until 2016. Leckrone and Robar were discharged from the Army in 1919 and continued their careers in nursing. Robar worked at veterans hospitals in Colorado, Massachusetts and South Dakota, and died in 1986. Leckrone worked at a tuberculosis hospital and raised four children with her husband. She died in 1989.

With Rignel, they were awarded the Citation Star, but it was discovered in 2007 that the three women may have never received their awards nor known they were eligible to exchange them for Silver Stars.

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In January 1944, in an effort to drive the Germans out of Rome, the Allies launched Operation Shingle, an amphibious landing targeting the coastal resort town of Anzio, Italy. Among the Army nurses serving in field hospital tents along the beachhead as part of the 56th Evacuation Hospital Unit were 2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth, 1st Lt. Mary Roberts, 2nd Lt. Elaine Roe and 2nd Lt. Rita Rourke. The fighting was fierce and close, and the women worked 12- to 15-hour shifts. Though their tents were clearly marked with red crosses, they were routinely strafed by dive bombers and barraged by artillery. Offered the opportunity to evacuate to a safer location, the “Angels of Anzio” refused. The battle raged for five months.

In early February, Ainsworth, 24, was on duty when a shell landed just outside the hospital tent where she was working. Shrapnel fragments tore through the canvas, but Ainsworth emerged unscathed. She remained calm and guided her patients to the floor. Her actions that day earned her the Silver Star, but she would not live to receive it.

Ainsworth had graduated from the Eitel Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis in 1941, just before the bombing at Pearl Harbor. After volunteering for the Army Nurse Corps in 1942, she served in Morocco and Tunisia, followed by an assignment to the 56th Evacuation Hospital. Ainsworth was known for her fun-loving spirit. During the holidays, just before the invasion, she had organized a group to sing Christmas carols to the troops.

Days after Ainsworth’s first brush with danger, her hospital unit was hit again by a barrage of artillery. Again, shrapnel ripped through the tent. This time Ainsworth was not so lucky; a piece lodged in her chest, but she kept working. She died from her wounds six days later. She is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno and was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

The team’s chief nurse, Mary Roberts, summarized the attitude of the women serving at Anzio for The Dallas Morning News: “You could say I was fearful but not scared. There were so many soldiers depending on you.”

Born and raised in Texas, Roberts began working as a nurse when she was a teenager, supporting her mother and five siblings after her father died. As she told the Los Angeles Times, the decision was “strictly financial. And in 1932 there weren’t a lot of possibilities for women.”

After the war, Roberts served for 25 years as operating room supervisor at a Dallas VA hospital. She married an Army veteran and became a stepmother to his three children. Roberts died in 2001, rarely speaking about her Silver Star and keeping it in a closet.

Along with Roberts, Roe and Rourke received the Silver Star for their actions Feb. 10, 1944, at Anzio. When shrapnel strafed their hospital tent, patients who could ran for cover. For those unable to move on their own, Roe and Rourke lowered their litters to the floor and stayed with them. With electrical wires cut, the two women used flashlights to evacuate 42 patients calmly and methodically. Instead of protecting themselves, they chose to keep the operating room functioning.

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A fifth woman earned the Silver Star during World War II, though her story is less well known. The daughter of an evangelical missionary, Magdalena “Maggie” Leones was a 22-year-old teacher studying to become a nun. When the Japanese invaded Bataan, she refused to surrender and spent five months in captivity. While imprisoned, she taught herself Nippongo, which would save her and help save her country.

The U.S. Army Forces in the Philippines-Northern Luzon (USAFIP-NL) recruited Leones to serve as a special agent, ferrying radio parts, intelligence data and medical supplies to resistance leaders through enemy territory. Her church connections and knowledge of the language allowed her to move more freely than others, operating right under the noses of the Japanese. Her actions enabled continued communication with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which led to the landings at Leyte and the eventual re-taking of the Philippines.

In 1945, Leones was awarded the Silver Star, the first and only Asian woman to receive the medal. She later emigrated with her husband and children to California, where she died in 2016 at 95. She rarely talked about her wartime service or her award.

Leones accomplished her missions “with the grace and wile of a cat,” wrote Filipino author Phillip Kimpo Jr., “if not the cunning ingenuity of a fox.”

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The most recent female Silver Star recipient, Army Pfc. Monica Lin Brown, served in Afghanistan as a combat medic with 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. She grew up in Texas and followed her older brother into the Army, joining at 17.

On April 25, 2007, while on a combat patrol en route to Jani Khel for a leader engagement with village elders, a vehicle in Brown’s convoy hit an IED, severely injuring soldiers and initiating an enemy ambush. Brown rushed to provide aid, dodging small arms and mortar fire and shielding the wounded from exploding shrapnel, including extra ammunition in the vehicle cooked off by the fire.

Brown saved the lives of several soldiers that day, and Vice President Dick Cheney pinned the Silver Star on her. Nevertheless, she was pulled from the field a few days after the attack, because women were not formally allowed to participate in combat at the time.

A platoon leader with Charlie Troop, 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment told The Washington Post, “We weren’t supposed to take her out (on missions), but we had to because there was no other medic.”

Despite an official ban on women in combat roles, the experience of these and other female servicemembers shows the ban certainly did not prevent them from encountering it. When tested, they proved their mettle and saved lives.

Taylor Baldwin Kiland is the co-author of “Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind.” She is a former Navy officer and member of American Legion Post 24 in Alexandria, Va.