In Iraq, Spc. Jessie Miller became the first female to do solo missions for the Army. The lessons she learned there would change her life forever.
EUGENE — She was the soldier who was never supposed to exist, the product of a central Oregon upbringing in which military service had never been even remotely on the radar for her future career.
Jessie Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2001, not as the result of a considered evaluation of her options, or in the surge of post-9/11 patriotism (she actually joined in February), but rather because of an ultimatum from then-Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley.
“I was getting in trouble, fist fighting a lot. Sheriff Hensley used to chase me around town,” she says. “One day, he sat me down and said, ‘You’re getting older, so you need to either get your stuff together and go into the Army, or I’m going to have to start arresting you.’”
She decided to take him up on it. She had been looking for a way out of Prineville anyway, and hey — how hard could it be?
“I thought, ‘I can do that. I’m a tough girl right?’” She laughs. “It was so funny. I went into basic training, and the first week there, I was bawling my eyes out. I wanted to come home. I wasn’t as tough as I thought.”
Not yet, anyway. When her NCO, Staff Sergeant Johnson, recommended her to become the first and only female member of a decon platoon attached to the 1st Engineer Battalion, toughening up became her only option if she wanted to survive.
The soldiers of the 1st Engineer Battalion, a decorated Army unit that traces its lineage to the original Company of Sappers and Miners organized at West Point in 1846, were not happy.
“They were like, ‘We don’t want to babysit her,’” she recalled. “They were angry that I was there.”
They hazed her, literally running circles around her during PT to show how slow she was. But she didn’t give up. She pushed herself until she earned the respect of the men she now calls “brothers.” And looking back, she’s grateful for the experience.
“It took me forever to get up to their level, and it was very hard for me,” she says, “but if I hadn’t done that, there’s no way I would have kept up with the Marines when we deployed. No possible way.”
The need for their only female engineer to keep up with Marines was probably not something her platoon commanders had contemplated before deployment. After all, in 2003, women were not allowed on the front lines or in combat roles, as a matter of official military policy.
But on the ground in Ramadi, as U.S. forces and our allies fought to secure the city, they found they would need female soldiers for jobs that only women could do.
Miller says that in the early weeks and months of the invasion of Iraq, many men either fled the city or were killed or captured in battle. They left behind women, who — under the strict codes of their culture, society and religion — were forbidden to speak with or be touched by men who were not their husbands.
This, of course, included the male service members who were under orders to search and interrogate the people they found on patrol and in house-to-house sweeps.
“The Marines approached my commander and said, ‘The women won’t talk to us or have anything to do with us,’” she said. “They said, ‘We need a female,’ and well, we had one.”
Initially, she was a solo operator, assigned to other Army units or other branches. In this, she became the first female to do missions by herself for the Army and the Marines.
She had no way of knowing she was a prototype for a new operation, and a new type of soldier. They would come to be known as the lionesses: the first women in American history sent into direct ground combat, fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War and returning home as part of the United States’ first generation of female combat veterans.
Eventually, Miller would be partnered with another specialist, Shannon Morgan, who would later be profiled in the 2008 PBS documentary Lioness.
“That’s when we really started kicking down doors, looking for specific people, interrogating women, that sort of thing,” she says. “Over time, we were able to build enough trust that the women started telling us the locations of weapons caches, escape routes, communications routes, even two members of the deck of cards. They were caught as a result of Lioness intel.”
Now, 15 years later, she looks back and still has a hard time believing she saw and experienced some of the things she did. Like her first time in Ramadi, shortly after the initial raid.
“There were buildings on fire, blown up things everywhere,” she says. “People suffering and severely, severely wounded, and I’m just watching this as we drive by. Seeing people suffer like that was insane. Even to this day, I’m still digesting some of the things that I saw over there.”
She remembers the chaos. But, she also remembers the many life lessons she gained from her service.
“Kindness matters,” she says, when asked what those lessons were.
You learned that in a war zone?
“Yes, absolutely: Where the smallest kindness can have the largest impact,” she says.
She also learned hard lessons about her limitations. She described the conditions she often found Iraqi women living in.
“They were on the floor with the dogs,” she said. “It was filthy. They weren’t allowed to go outside. They weren’t allowed to drive. They weren’t allowed to do anything. That was their everyday life, and had been ever since they could remember.”
It made her angry, and she wanted to do something about it. She would pick the women up, dust them off and shame the men for treating them that way.
“I’d say, ‘See? She’s a human, too,’” she recalled. “Then later, when I would see that woman in pieces, or tortured in the street, I realized that I can’t take these people home with me.”
It taught her the stakes she was playing with. This was life and death, not some childish, “I’m going to teach you a lesson” game.
“I learned that to really communicate with people, you have to do it within their reality, or you’re going to cause a lot of pain,” she said. “And that’s not what I wanted to do.”
Despite the often difficult, dangerous and trying circumstances of her service overseas, Miller said she looks back positively on the experience and, especially, the positive growth and wisdom it developed in her. Among other things, it gave her a deep respect for life and an appreciation of her country and the many freedoms it affords, especially to women.
“It was honestly the best move I could have made,” she said of her decision to enlist. “It changed the trajectory of my life for the better.”
This article was originally published in print in the November 2019 edition of Oregon Veteran News Magazine, produced by the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs. For more information about publications produced by ODVA, or to subscribe for free, visit ODVA’s website.