At dusk on April 25, 2007, Brown's platoon had just finished searching for a Taliban leader near the village of Jani Khel. The convoy of four Humvees and one Afghan National Army pickup truck had turned into a dry streambed when a pressure-plate bomb exploded under the rear Humvee.
"Two-One is hit!" Staff Sgt. Jose Santos yelled. Looking back, Brown saw the Humvee engulfed in a fireball as its fuel tank and fuel cans ignited. Insurgents about 100 yards to the east opened up with machine guns and AK-47 semiautomatic rifles, as Brown and Santos ran without cover to the burning vehicle.
Four of those injured crawled or were thrown from the Humvee, while a fifth, Spec. Larry Spray, was caught inside by his boot and was on fire. Sgt. Zachary Tellier managed to pull him out.
Brown and a colleague then grabbed Spec. Stanson Smith, who was in shock and blinded by blood from his lacerated forehead, and dragged him by his body armor into a ditch about 15 yards away. Tellier helped Spray limp over.
No sooner were they in the ditch that insurgents began firing mortars. Brown threw her body over Smith, shielding him as more than a dozen rounds hit nearby. The ammunition inside the burning Humvee then started exploding, including 60mm mortars, 40mm grenade rounds and rifle ammunition. Again, Brown lay over the wounded.
Robbins, the platoon leader, repositioned his Humvee near the injured and was incredulous that Brown had survived. "I was surprised I didn't get killed and she'd been over there for 10, 15 minutes longer," he recalled.
"There was small arms coming in from two different machine-gun positions, mortars falling . . . a burning Humvee with 16 mortar rounds in it, chunks of aluminum the size of softballs flying all around," said Robbins, of Portsmouth, R.I. "It was about as hairy as it gets."
Santos, the platoon sergeant, drove the pickup over to get the wounded to safety. "It was pretty much just like a miracle run," Brown recalled. With another soldier, she hoisted Smith onto the truck, while Spray crouched behind the back window and Brown dived onto a bench in the back. There, Brown put pressure on Smith's head, which was bleeding heavily, and also held the hand of Spray, who was charred and shaking.
"Talk to him," she told Spray, trying to keep Smith conscious. Spray, his face contorted with pain and fear, responded: "It's going to be okay."
Santos drove to a more protected position, while Brown bandaged Smith and Spray, gave them IVs and readied them for the helicopters that arrived 45 minutes later. Brown "never looked around or anything," Robbins said. "She was focused on the patients the whole time. She did her job perfectly."
Smith and Spray were flown to the United States, and Tellier received a Bronze Star for pulling Spray from the Humvee. He was killed five months later in another firefight.
Brown stayed in the field for two more days, while U.S. Apache helicopter gunships attacked insurgents and blew up the damaged Humvee. Within a week, however, she was abruptly called back to the sprawling U.S. base in Khost.
"I got pulled" by higher-ups, she said, because her presence as "a female in a combat arms unit" had attracted attention.
President Bush has forcefully backed the Army's restrictions, asserting in a January 2005 interview with the Washington Times that there should be "no women in combat." Since her heroic actions, however, Brown was promoted to specialist and has been congratulated by Cheney in Afghanistan, praised in a meeting with Bush at a NATO summit in Romania, and offered a job on the White House staff.
Military officers in the field and independent experts have said it is both infeasible and contrary to the Army's own warfighting doctrine to prevent women from serving in proximity to -- or together with -- all-male combat units in today's war zones. They contend that if the goal of the policy is to protect women from capture or bodily harm, it cannot be done in the scramble of conflicts such as those in the Middle East.
Across Afghanistan, female medics such as Brown are regularly sent to serve with combat units. "The real catch was to have a female medic out there because of the cultural sensitivities and the flexibility that gave commanders," said Maj. Paul Narowski, the executive officer of Brown's battalion. "It is absolutely not about gender in terms of how well they will do," he said, adding that he does not know why Brown was pulled out.
The only other female Silver Star recipient in the past 60 years was Sgt. Lee Ann Hester, a military policewoman in Iraq who the Army said had responded to a 2005 insurgent attack on a convoy by firing grenades.
"I didn't want to leave," Brown said, after being pulled from the platoon. Robbins said he and his men, who called Brown "Doc," also wanted to keep her as their medic.
"I've seen a lot of grown men who didn't have the courage and weren't able to handle themselves under fire like she did," said Staff Sgt. Aaron Best of Canton, N.C., Robbins's gunner that day. "She never missed a beat."