CPT Linda L. Bray
CPT Bray was the first woman to officially lead US troops in combat.
Linda L. Bray was born in Sanford, North Carolina, and raised in Butner, NC. She graduated from South Granville High School in Creedmoor, North Carolina. She attended Western Carolina University, where she joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in 1981. Bray graduated with a degree in criminal justice in 1982, but returned in 1983 to earn a military science degree and fulfill her ROTC requirement. This qualified her for direct commission into the US Army.
In June 1983, she was commissioned a second lieutenant and went on active duty on June 1, 1983. After completing the Military Police Officer Basic Course and Nuclear Physical Security training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, Lt Bray served with the 556th Military Police Company in Siegelsbach West Germany from November 1983 to November 1987. She then attended the Military Police Officer Advanced Course and Provost Marshal training at Fort McClellan before serving as a training officer and then as a personnel officer at Fort Benning, Georgia. CPT Bray next served as Commanding Officer of the 988th Military Police Company at Fort Benning from 1988 to August 1990, during which time she deployed with the Company to Panama for Operation Just Cause from December 1989 to April 1990.
For a little historical background on Operation Just Cause, President Bush (the first one) ordered the Panama Invasion following the murder of a U.S. Marine at a road block by soldiers of the Panama Defense Force (PDF), and the kidnapping and torture of 2 other US citizens during the same incident. The reason for the invasion was to overthrow Panama’s military dictator at the time, Manuel Noriega.
CPT Bray had 123 soldiers under her command in the 988th Military Police Company. In December 1989 CPT Bray was leading a platoon of 45 Soldiers (some sources said 30) with the objective to neutralize a unit of Panamanian special operations soldiers holed up inside a military barracks and dog kennel on the outskirts of Panama City.
Her platoon was comprised mostly of men, but there were a few other women.
They were armed with M-16s (rifle), M-60s (machine gun), and MK19-3 (grenade launchers).
The kennel turned out to be heavily defended by Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF). Her team used a bullhorn to tell them to surrender and also fired warning shots. When their warnings went unheeded, they opened fire. The PDF returned fire. The battle lasted three hours before the barracks/kennel was secured.
CPT Bray’s troops killed three of the enemy and took one prisoner before the rest were forced to flee, leaving behind a cache of grenades, assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to Associated Press news reports published at the time. CPT Bray’s platoon suffered zero casualties in the over 3 hour fire fight.
The news about CPT Bray was on the cover of many newspapers during the Panama Invasion. She claimed to have been surprised to see attention focused on her gender, rather than showcasing the accomplishments of the troops.
Unfortunately, instead of being applauded for her actions, as the first woman in U.S. history to lead male troops in combat and bringing the entire platoon back alive, CPT Bray said higher-ranking officers accused her of embellishing accounts of what happened. She came under serious criticism by her superiors as military police are supposed to be non-combative. “The responses of my superior officers were very degrading, like, `What were you doing there?’” Bray later said. “A lot of people couldn’t believe what I had done, or did not want to believe it.”
Even reporters at the White House press conference held after the fire fight suggested that the dog kennel attacked by Bray’s troops was not a very difficult target, trying to downplay CPT Bray’s accomplishments.
White House spokesman Martin Fitzwater came to CPT Bray’s defense and snapped at the reporters by saying, “It’s unfair to belittle the action by referring to this as dog kennels. It was heavily defended. Three PDF men were killed. Gunshots were fired on both sides. American troops could have been killed.” Mr. Fitzwater also said, “It was an important military operation,” he said. “A woman led it and she did an outstanding job and the fact is that role has been anticipated from the first day she was given that assignment.”
After her story became public, Congress fiercely debated whether she and other women had any business being on the battlefield. This caused issues for her career and led to debates over women’s rights in the military.
As a result of experiences of women in Operation Just Cause, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colorado) drafted legislation (H.R. 3868) that would allow women to serve in combat on a test basis. Schroder’s bill died after top generals lobbied against the measure, saying female soldiers just weren’t up to the physical rigors of combat.
“The routine carrying of a 120-pound rucksack day in and day out on the nexus of battle between infantrymen is that which is to be avoided and that’s what the current Army policy does,” Gen. M.R. Thurman, then the head of the U.S. Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
For CPT Bray, the blowback got personal.
The Army refused to grant her and other female soldiers who fought on the ground in Panama the Combat Infantryman Badge. She was only awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Valor, an award for meritorious achievement in a non-combat role.
CPT Bray was also the subject of an Army investigation over allegations by Panamanian officials that she and her soldiers had destroyed government and personal property during the invasion that toppled Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Though CPT Bray was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the events of Operation Just Cause fueled the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule issued by the Department of Defense in 1994. It excluded women from engaging in combat.
It was not until January 24, 2013, 23 years after CPT Bray’s mission in Panama, that this rule was rescinded by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. CPT Bray said she was “thrilled” and “excited” when the ban was lifted. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful that our nation’s military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling. It’s nothing new now in the military for a woman to be right beside a man in operations.”
CPT Bray retired from the Army on April 16, 1991 due to a noncombat training injury. She received a medical retirement because of her injuries.
She married CPT John Raymond “Randy” Bray III on December 6, 1983, whom she met while stationed in Germany.
In 2014 CPT Bray was interviewed for a documentary by director Martin called Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots. She spoke about her time in the military and her deployment to Panama for Operation Just Cause.
CPT Bray currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Mary Jennings Hegar
I truly hesitated to tell her story and I want to admit that up front. Honestly It took me a bit because I was riding my own reactions and reflections in regards to her story. Finally, I was oh no this is exactly the type of story I want to tell.
First, my biggest hesitation is that she is currently running for political office. I felt like that fact alone was going to cause her story to lose its impact. I came across her book sort of by chance. I was buying a book and the site recommended other books I might like. Her book was titled, Shoot Like A Girl. Okay, sold. We can talk about my second hesitation after I tell her story.
Mary was born March 16, 1974 in Connecticut. She came from an abusive family dynamic and has nightmare fuel for early childhood memories. Thankfully her mother was able to escape that situation and Mary was able to continue to grow up in a supportive loving household. Jennings wasn’t the last name she was born with, just a side note, it was her step fathers last name. She credits him for her outlook on life and how he allowed her to grew up in an environment that never excluded women from being able to do things. Gender wasn’t a barrier or a limitation on her dreams. She takes the last name Hegar when she marries her husband Brandon in 2011. They have two children together and three children from his previous marriage.
She attended college at the University of Texas in Austin and Joined the Air Force ROTC. In 1999 she joined the Air Force as a butter bar and was sent to Japan for her first duty station. She wanted to be a pilot, but since she didn’t get the chance to snag a pilot slot out of ROTC, she joined as Aircraft Maintenance Officer in the hopes of being able to use her experience with the aircraft to make her a better pilot in the future.
She is pretty candid in her interviews and her book about the effect her gender had on the way some of the men she worked with would view or treat her. She often did what many of us do, ignore it and keep working. Stay calm and don’t rock the boat because your career or your dreams are on the line. Fortunately for her, she also had supporters along the way that didn’t take the discrimination as calmly as she did but over the years, that support wasn’t always there and she was constanly proving herself to everyone around her.
So in order for Mary to get a pilot slot she had to be the top choice of the entire base. Crazy odds, the best of the best of the best, right? Well she got to the top multiple times, but there was always something that got in the way.
A horrific event occurs to her during another one of her preparations for applying for the pilot program. This time she is stationed in Missouri and she is sexually assaulted during her physical evaluation. The event, the way in which it was handled, the failure of the leadership, the trauma, cause her to decide to leave the Air Force.
What she doesn’t do though is give up on her dreams of becoming a pilot. She applies and is selected to fly Combat search and rescue for the New York Air National Guard. She attends training in Columbus Mississippi, on to FT Rucker, AL, and SERE training in the great Pacific Northwest. I want to note here as well just to give you an idea of how tough she is… days away from completing SERE she has to be medevac’d out, (for an old injury she was ignoring) and was told students never return after they get dropped. But she did and passed. Her focus and dedication to accomplishing her goal… just amazing.
She becomes a HH-60 Pave Hawk Helicopter Pilot and deploys with her unit to Afghanistan in 2007. She flies as a Co Pilot on med evac and rescue missions for all three of her deployments to Afghanistan.
Sometimes flying up to five missions in a twelve-hour shift.
She ends up doing two tours in Afghanistan back to back and when she returns stateside, she transfers over to the California Air National Guard working for the California Counterdrug Task Force in Silicon Valley.
She flew counterdrug missions as well as wildfire suppression missions during her time with the unit.
She deployed to Afghanistan for a third time in 2009 and has been in Afghanistan for five months when they flew a rescue mission that would end up according to her be the longest day of her life.
They flew in to rescue three critical soldiers that had been injured in an IED explosion. When they arrive at the site, a shot tears through the windshield of the helicopter and Mary is hit. She is bleeding from both her arm and leg, but she doesn’t notice it at first. Her crew is freaking out, we need to return to base, but she is adamant that she is fine and they need to stay and rescue the soldiers. They go back in to the convoy to pick up the patients and the sister ship tells them they have a weapons malfunction and they could only support them with cover fire from one side. They land their helicopter to pick up the patients and the Taliban let loose. The Taliban fighters had prepared to take down a rescue helicopter. They were set up on the high ground to target the landing zone. The patients finally getwere loaded and the aircraft was able to take off, however it lost all of its fuel due to bullet holes in the fuel line. They were forced to make a crash landing and end up with about a 150 Taliban all heading their way. Under enemy fire and losing time, the sister aircraft lands to pick up the patients and part of the crew. Two Army helicopters which don’t have the room to take on more passengers, agrees to fly the rest of the crew and the pilots out on their skids.
This is seriously movie material, right? Exactly why they are in the process of producing a movie about this, and Angelina Jolie is possibly going to play Mary in the movie.
She is the sixth woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross and the second woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. The first was Amelia Earhart, who received hers July 29th 1932. The date of action for Mary Jennings DFC? July 29, 2009. Exactly 77 years later. She also has a Purple Heart, the Air Force Combat Action Medal, and many other awards from her time in service.
Her citation for the DFC with Valor reads:
CPT Mary O Jennings distinguished herself by heroism while participating in aerial flight as an 1111-600 Pave Hawk Co Pilot near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan on July 29, 2009. On that date CPT Jennings flew in a two ship formation, PEDRO 15 and PEDRO 16 tasked with the urgent medevac of three United States soldiers injured when their convoy was attacked. While Pedro 16 provided cover fire and Shamus 34 and 36 expended Hellfire missiles and .50 caliber rounds, her crew executed a tactical approach to a brown out landing alongside the vehicles. Immediately, the aircraft received a round through Captain Jennings’ windshield, injuring her in the arm and leg. After the aircraft safely lifted, she refused to return to base while part of her team was on the ground. Despite the shattered windshield and wounds to her arm and leg, Captain Jennings and her crew courageously risked their lives to return and rescue the Pararescuemen and patients from the ambush. Once on the ground, Pedro 15 started taking accurate belt-fed heavy machine gun fire, damaging multiple systems. Resisting the urge to escape, she held the Pilot from taking off until the patients were loaded. On takeoff, Captain Jennings saw the number one engine was about to flameout due to fuel loss. She saved the lives of all on board by immediately selecting the number two fuel tank. The disabled aircraft had to land less than two miles away, and she was on the ground taking fire for 18 minutes before being extracted on the skids of an OH-58. On takeoff, Captain Jennings observed muzzle flashes from small arms fire which was aimed at the crew running toward Pedro 16 and provided cover fire for them with her own weapon. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Captain Jennings reflect great credit upon herself and the United States Air Force.
After she returns home from deployment and struggles to find her way in ordinary life, her injuries finally catch up to her and she can no longer fly. She decided she was okay with that ultimately, and that being a Special Tactic officer, deploying with ground forces would be the next best thing. However here we are again where gender ends up being a barrier. The only reason she could not apply for this job was because she was a woman.
In 2012 she was one of four women who signed the lawsuit against the Secretary of defense, Secretary Leon Panetta, over allowing women to serve in combat. The suit was known as Hegar vs Panetta and on January 23 2013 Secretary Panetta lifted the ban. Three days later she organized a “storm the hill” day where her and other members of the Combat Integration Initiative and Women in International Security spoke with members of congress and senators about the exclusion and inclusion of women in combat roles.
What I really loved about her thoughts on this was that it was more about allowing women the opportunity. The chance for the right person to fill a job is an option now. It isn’t that every man is capable of being this amazing combat fighter, or that every woman would be amazing at it either, but some of them are. Limiting options due to gender is ignorant and heroes should be recognized for what they have done regardless of what they have between their legs.
She made a comment in her book which is something I have understood and lived with for most of my career. And here we are two women, who served very different paths in the military, but we have the same belief. You can learn a hell of a lot more from leaders you do not want to emulate. I like how she worded it, better said than what I worded it, but it’s the same fact. A bad leader is not going to make me a bad leader, it’s going to make me a better one.
So… do you want to talk about my second hesitation for telling her story? It is kind of embarrassing honestly. As I was reading her book, I thought that she seemed super cocky. I was like hmm idk about this lady. I want to note that I am a supporter of women. I am friends with women who other people see as, how do I put this? Very aggressive. But I also make judgements and find myself critiquing people in an extremely unfair way. When I caught myself thinking badly about this woman I had never even met, it hit me. WTH am I doing? What about her story or the way in which she is telling it, is triggering me to behave/think like this? Why is it so easy for me to want to build women up and in the same mindset want to tear them down?
I think we have to have these hard conversations. Whether it is about race, or gender, or sexual orientation, religious differences, whatever. How do we get better? We have to be open to examining our thoughts and our beliefs.
I like to remain publicly neutral on politics, I don’t like getting into arguments over politics. It is seriously like one of my least favorite things. But I am so thankful for the work that she put in for her sisters in arms.