FORT BRAGG, N.C. — At 17, Monica Lin Brown joined the Army. At 18, she dashed into a firefight to help wounded soldiers. Twice she shielded them with her body.
This spring still a teenager at 19 she stood at attention during a ceremony in Afghanistan while Vice President Dick Cheney pinned the nation’s third-highest medal for heroism on her, making Brown just the second woman since World War II to win the Silver Star.
Spc. Brown, of Lake Jackson, Texas, recently returned to Fort Bragg. This week, she and two soldiers with the unit that was ambushed in Afghanistan told the story of her work as a medic temporarily assigned to a combat outfit.
Brown joined the Army so young because her older brother Justin was enlisting.
In February 2007, her unit was sent to Afghanistan, to a base called Salerno a few miles from Pakistan. The area around the base, near the city of Khowst, isn’t secure, and bombs have been planted on the main road less than a mile from the gates.
At first, Brown worked in the base hospital. Then came a request for a medic to temporarily join part of the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, at a tiny forward base in an isolated part of Paktika province. Female medics are often a big plus in Afghanistan, where missions offer medical care to local Afghans, and Afghan men often won’t allow male medics to treat women and girls.
On April 25, 2007, Brown was the medic on a mission to hunt members of a bomb-making cell. The patrol had finished its work and was returning to its base, with platoon commander Lt. Martin Robbins in the lead Humvee. The last of the five trucks had just eased down a dip in the rough road when one of its rear wheels triggered an improvised bomb, shredding the back of the truck and flinging the rest onto its side.
A few yards ahead, the turret gunner in the next truck yelled that the Humvee was hit. The driver slammed on the brakes, and Brown leaped out. Already, insurgents had begun firing assault rifles and machine guns, and soon an insurgent mortar team joined in from down the road.
Brown and her platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Jose Santos, dashed back to the burning truck, where all five soldiers inside were wounded.
Hidden insurgents were firing at the wreckage from about 25 yards away. Brown and the soldiers who were least injured helped the others move away from the flames, down into a shallow stream bed. Brown, yelling instructions, hoped the dip would provide cover.
It didn’t. The flames began to detonate ammunition in the stricken truck, and the exposed soldiers were quickly caught between automatic weapons fire from insurgents and blasts from the truck, Robbins said.
This was the first of two points in the firefight when Brown lay across wounded men to shield them.
Robbins had been so far ahead that he hadn’t heard the initial explosion, but he turned around when his own Humvee came under fire. When he reached the bomb site, his turret gunner focused on an insurgent machine gun, and he radioed that everyone who could should stay in the heavily armored Humvees.
Robbins recalled looking down and seeing empty shell casings from his truck’s machine gun pelting Brown’s back as she worked on the wounded.
“She was completely confident,” he said. “She was just completely concentrated on the casualties.”
Brown said concentrating on the job helped. “I wasn’t really focusing on everything that was going on around us,” she said. “I might have been afraid if I had.”
The shooting went on more than half an hour, and the wounded soldiers had to be moved twice to safer locations. By the time the fight was over, Brown had used all her supplies. The wounded men were eventually evacuated by helicopter.
A couple of days after the firefight, Brown headed home to Texas for a two-week leave. When she returned to Afghanistan, the unit had other medics, said Lt. Col. Dave Woods, commander of the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment. Brown returned to duty at Salerno but continued going on dangerous missions with patrols outside the main base.
Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said Army regulations prevent women from permanent assignments to front-line combat units, but temporary assignments like Brown’s are allowed.
The presence of women in combat has been a sensitive subject for the Pentagon for years, and the frontless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where all troops are to some degree vulnerable have eroded the effectiveness of the official policy.
Robbins said there was no question in his mind or that of anyone else there that day that Brown should get a medal. He put in the paperwork for it, though the process took several months.
The Army let her brother, Justin, come to the medal ceremony, but she had one wish the Army couldn’t grant, which was to bring the soldiers from Robbins’ platoon to the ceremony, too. They were in transit home.
“They looked out for me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.”
Brown plans to leave the Army for nursing school, where she will sign up for ROTC. When she’s done, she plans to return to the service.
First, though, she’s looking forward to a big birthday: In two weeks, Brown turns 20.