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Heroic in war, she's tormented at home

Spc. Ashley Pullen, 22, risked her life in a firefight to save a comrade. But her experience in Iraq left her a changed woman.

December 24, 2006|Sharon Cohen | The Associated Press

Spc. Ashley Pullen wasn't thinking about the dozens of Iraqi insurgents who had just ambushed the convoy. Nor their piles of guns and grenades. Nor the bullets ripping through the air around her.

Her bloody comrade lay on the road south of Baghdad, and she had to help the gravely wounded soldier -- fast.

She hustled as quickly as her short legs would carry her, ignoring the heat, the ferocious battle and her heavy gear.

She ran 100, 200, 300 feet -- the length of a football field.

It was March 20, 2005, the day Pullen, a member of the Kentucky National Guard's 617th Military Police Company, became a hero. It was the day that would earn this daughter of small-town America a Bronze Star for valor.

Now, 21 months later, Pullen is a casualty of war, struggling with invisible battle scars.

Pullen is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of a year in Iraq marked by harrowing brushes with danger and death -- tempered with daily prayers for survival.

Pullen, now 22, doesn't go out much these days, and she says her moods swing for no good reason.

"It's just an emotional roller coaster every day," she says. "I have no other way to describe it. I can be a perfectly happy, normal person. Then five seconds later, I will be so mad that I can't see straight."

Pullen says she has a hard time concentrating long enough to read a book. And she hasn't totally shaken some habits that made perfect sense in a war zone but don't translate to the quiet roads of south-central Kentucky.

Sometimes when she drives, she says, her husband, Daniel, notices she's veering too close to the center line -- something she did in Iraq to try to avoid roadside bombs.

"Baby," he gently warns her. "Hellooo ... "

Pullen says she once was always smiling, always happy.

The war changed everything.

Pullen, who joined the Guard at age 17 to help pay for college, didn't want a desk job. She chose the military police, feeling that it better suited someone who "likes to be to be in the middle of everything." In Iraq, she found herself in the thick of explosions, gunfire and mortar attacks.

The ambush that turned her into a hero started on a hot March morning just outside Baghdad. Here's how Pullen remembers it:

She was driving one of three Humvees providing security behind a 30-vehicle convoy when the crackle of gunshots and the boom of rocket-propelled grenades filled the air.

Pullen's unit moved ahead to counterattack, flanking the insurgents so they couldn't escape.

Pullen got out of her Humvee and braced herself against the back of it. She and other soldiers unleashed a torrent of gunfire and grenades on 40 to 50 insurgents attacking from a nearby orchard.

She could see the enemy clearly, armed with dozens of AK-47s, machine guns and grenades. Pullen blasted away with her M-4 rifle, emptying a 30-round magazine, then reloaded and opened fire again.

"You don't have time to be scared," she says. "You just have time to react.... The fear doesn't set in until later when you say, 'Oh my God, what happened?'.... When the bullets start flying, you're saying, 'OK, I want to live through this,' and you do everything you can to survive."

Answering a radio call -- "Everybody's down! I need help" -- Pullen backed up her Humvee part way, then ran about 300 feet to a gravely wounded sergeant, who was screaming and rocking in agony. (Pullen says she didn't pull her truck next to him, fearing that would create a bigger target for the insurgents.)

Dodging bullets, she dropped to her knees to help her comrade. "It hurts! It hurts!" he yelled. She got him out of his bloody vest, lifted his shirt and saw that a single slug had pierced his stomach through his back, leaving a hole the size of a quarter.

Pullen tried to bandage and calm him.

"Think of green grass and trees and home," she said. "Think about your little boy. Think about anything but here."

Pullen was thinking of the spring at her Kentucky home. "I don't know if that comforted him, but it worked for me."

As she was tending to the sergeant, a medic from her company fired a shoulder-held rocket launcher at a sniper's nest. "Back blast clear!" he shouted, a warning to stay far away. But Pullen was close enough to touch his leg.

She blanketed her body -- all 5 foot 2 -- over the wounded sergeant to protect him. The blast knocked her on her backside.

When it was over, at least 26 insurgents were dead and six were wounded. Three civilians in the convoy also were killed. The three wounded members of Pullen's company survived.

The insurgents' arsenal, according to a military report, included 35 AK-47s and machine guns, 16 rocket-propelled grenades, 39 hand grenades, 175 full or empty AK-47 magazines, 2,500 loose rounds -- and a video camera with footage of the ambush.

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