06/27/2006 05:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women at War

Three things you should know -- but don't -- about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan

In a very real way, this war -- despite the more than 2500 killed and greater than 30,000 wounded -- remains a mystery to the vast majority of America. Part of this amnesia is a lack of interest; not unexpected since we have a military at war and not a nation. Part is the social paralysis and feelings of personal helplessness brought on by relentless political spin and journalists who -- for reasons that remain obscure -- have chosen to be more stenographers than reporters. Yet, even with all that, there are a number of facts, indeed numbers themselves, available to anyone willing to look; truths that are not only evident today, but will become more obvious and more certain, as the war continues. This is a war that will not go away; and in the end, despite the wishes of those in charge, it will be a war left up to us, not to some "future president". Here are a few things that we should know now, so we are not surprised later...

Number One: Who is fighting this war. In short, how many women, either on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserve have been sent to Afghanistan and Iraq since the war began in April 03?

.By the time you read this the number will be crossing over 130,000.

Number Two: How many women daily running the most dangerous roads in the world have been killed or severely wounded.

59 killed and over 386 wounded; Well over one half with severe injuries: amputations, concussions, Traumatic Brain Injuries and PTSD(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Number Three: Where are our heroes?

They are there. But to learn about real heroes is to be forced to understand real risks. And a government that does not allow photographs of returning caskets is not prone to advertise nor promote those who take the risks nor the risks involved. In this war both our dead and our heroes can be a cause of embarrassment -- a reminder of just how dangerous and tragic this war has become or always was -- and who among us is making the fight..

I doubt if any of you have heard of Leigh Ann Hester. But at another time and in another place she might well have been paraded through the streets of America, her picture up on billboards and placed on postage stamps.

Sgt. Hester as a member of the 617th Military police company, a National Guard Unit from Richmond, Kentucky, is the first woman to receive the Silver Star for heroism since World War II and the first woman, ever, to receive the medal for close combat.

The 617th Military Police Company is technically a support unit. Over 20%of the 150 soldiers in the company are women. In Kentucky, the unit, among its other duties, provides crowd control at the Kentucky Derby.

Pentagon policy prohibits women from serving in front line combat units, infantry, artillery and tanks; but those regulations are for a different war. We are not fighting an enemy army in the field. In this war there are no front lines, and any moment of any day, any soldier or marine, male of female, faces the same risk of deadly close quarter combat.

Here is what happened on that March 20th...

Sgt. Hestor's patrol of three Humvees was patrolling a few miles of highway 12 miles Southeast of Baghdad. A convoy of 30 tractor-trailers passed in the opposite direction. Staff. Sgt. Timothy Nein, in command of the squad, was riding in the first Humvee. Nein decided to shadow the trucks until they were safely out of the area. Suddenly, the half mile long line of trucks stopped with the tractor-trailers at the head of the column breaking right and left across the road.

Sgt. Nein took the patrol of three Humvees towards the head of the column. When they reached the first trucks a number of the tractor-trailers were already in flames. Nein ordered the Humvees to get between the attackers and the convoy, taking the Humvees directly into the kill zone, where the gun fire was most heavily concentrated. Sgt. Nein flanked the insurgents by continuing on down the road, past the disabled vehicles , turning onto a side road that ran perpendicular to the main road. All the Humvees took machine gun, rocket propelled grenade, and AK 47 rounds as they made the turn onto the side road. In a blizzard of small arm fire and rocket-propelled grenades, Nein stopped his Humvee 200 yards down the road. Sgt. Hester in the second Humvee driven by another woman, Spec. Ashley J. Pullen, stopped 50 yards behind the lead Humvee. The third Humvee stopped at the turn.

What National Guard troops saw stunned everyone. Dozens of insurgents lined a trench that paralleled the main road. Dozens more were firing from a nearby orchard. More insurgents, wearing masks and civilian clothes, lined a trench that ran parallel to the side road; while parked behind the main trench a row of cars and SUVs, stood waiting, motors running with doors and trunks open for both a quick escape and to take to take hostages. Whatever was going on, this was a much larger ambush than anyone had anticipate.

The third Humvee, stopping at the turn and overlooking the main trench was soon in flames, all the occupants either dead or wounded. With gun fire coming from all directions, including front and behind, Sgt. Nein fearful that the squad would be overrun, left his Humvee, and instead of dismounting from the driver's side -- away from the firing -- opened his passenger side door and walked out directly into the incoming fire. Clearly out numbered, the only tactic for survival was to fight back without hesitation or restraint. Sgt. Hester, watching Nein from the second Humvee, did the same, following Nein towards the nearest trench. Within seconds, Nein shot an insurgent in the head and Hester trained her "aim point" -- a red dot that fixes the target -- on the chest of an insurgent about to fire an RPG and killed him. "I just put the dot on him and squeezed the trigger. It was like 'Whoa, I just killed somebody. Before that first one, it was almost like it wasn't real. Now it was for real."

Nein rolled into the trench and Hester followed. Sgt. Hester killed three more insurgents with her rifle. The trench was uneven and as they moved forward, firing over each other's shoulders, using the uneven sides of the trench as cover, stopping every few yards to lay down a field of fired as each reloaded, the two National Guardsmen continued forward, firing M203 grenade launched rounds and then when out of M203 rounds, lobbing hand grenades at the insurgents that remained in the trench. Finally, the shooting stopped.

As detailed in the After Battle Report, bodies littered the orchard and the trenches. Twenty-seven insurgents were killed, six wounded and one captured. The citation accompanying the awarding of The Silver Star reads: "(Sgt. Hester) maneuvered her team through the kill zone into a flanking position where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M203...she then cleared two trenches with her squad leader where she engaged and eliminated three AIF(anti-Iraqi forces) with her M4 rifle. Her actions saved the lives of numerous convoy members..."

Following the battle, Hester sat down on the side of the road and according to those in the battle and those soldiers who relieved her squad, she simply stared into space. And in some ways, she is still staring.

"I think about March 20 at least a couple of times a day, every day and I probably will for the rest of my life. It's taken its toll. Every night, I'm lucky if I don't see the pictures of it in my mind before I go to sleep and then, even if I don't, I'm dreaming about what we did."

During the battle and after Sgt. Hester had left the second Humvee, Ashley Pullen putting herself at great risk drove her and Hester's Humvee back to the burning third Humvee to treat the wounded and lay down covering fire. She received the bronze start for her bravery. Staff. Sgt. Nein also received the Silver Star. And this happens every day...