PHOTO: Leigh Ann Hester atop Gharib Ghar just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, 2015. Ghar is the Afghan word for mountain. / Submitted
By BROOKE WANSER
As a child growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Leigh Ann Hester was inspired by the service of her uncle, a Marine who fought in Vietnam, and her grandfather, who fought in World War II.
After graduating high school, the girl who identified as a tomboy joined the National Guard, later deploying to Baghdad.
In the midst of a 2005 ambush, Hester and another soldier boldly took the offense in an assault that would earn her the Silver Star for valor in combat, one of the nation’s highest honors.
Hester was the first woman to receive the award, at the age of 23.
“I knew that we were getting shot at, and I knew that if we didn’t overtake them as soon as possible, the likelihood that people would get hurt or killed was there,” she said of the surreal attack. “It’s almost video game-like.”
On Sunday, May 27, Hester will be among the female military officers honored at the U.S. Capitol during the annual Memorial Day Concert, broadcast live on PBS.
Before Hester was deployed to Iraq, she was working at the Shoe Carnival in Cool Springs. The September 11, 2001 attacks weighed on her, and she was eager to serve her country.
During her tour in Iraq, her group’s mission was to clear supply routes and escort convoys in the midst of violent attacks.
“You’d hear shots fired every day,” Hester said. “Somebody would get hit with an IED every day. My truck got hit several times.”
The day of the attack started out just like any other.
On the eastern side of Baghdad, Hester and her squad went to clear a route and wait for the convoys to safely pass through.
Around 10 a.m., Hester said she was in the area behind a convoy when it was ambushed.
Though she doesn’t know how many assailants there were, Hester estimated her unit was outnumbered three to one.
Her squad leader, Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, told her to follow him. The duo made their way to the insurgent trench line, guns blazing and throwing hand grenades.
When the smoke cleared, 27 insurgents were dead and nine wounded, while everyone in Hester’s unit survived.
“The adrenaline, you have so much adrenaline that it was kind of hard for me to think about everything that needed to get done,” she said.
The main thought going through her mind? “Kill the guys that are trying to kill you and your buddies.”
Both Nein and Hester were awarded the Silver Star; Nein’s was later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross.
Being the first woman to receive the Silver Star came with its fair share of fame, including interviews with big name media outlets and a trip to the Washington, D.C.
Upon landing in the United States, Hester said she was hounded by reporters before she saw her family.
“I’m not a celebrity by any means,” she said. “I’ve gotten used to it.”
Now a detective in the narcotics department with the Franklin Police, Hester continues her military service as a sergeant first class with the 252nd Military Police company out of Cleveland, Tennessee.
Hester will bring her mother and father to Sunday’s ceremony at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, which will air live from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
Hester’s appearance at the concert is part of an effort to honor women in the military, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which officially allowed women to serve in the armed forces.
Hearing young female soldiers tell Hester they learned about her in basic training is “super cool and super humbling,” she said.
“To think that maybe has a small part into opening up more roles for women in the military is…” she paused.
“I don’t want to take credit for it, because I was just doing my job as a soldier,” Hester explained. “I didn’t do anything my buddies wouldn’t do for me.”