Connie Christian joined the Army soon after high school. After growing up on Front Street and graduating from Dardanelle High in 1977, she and her husband moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma where they both decided to enlist. They went to the recruitment office together, but her husband’s back problems kept him from being able to sign up. “I’m here. I might as well do it,” she laughs, recalling that day. “So I ended up joining.” That was in 1979. She was nineteen years old.
She went to basic training at Anniston, Alabama where she spent three years in the Army. “Then I got out of the Army and stayed out five or six years,” she explains. When she and her husband moved back to Arkansas in the late 1980s she decided to join the Army Reserves with a unit in Little Rock. But she left the reserves when her mother became ill and passed away. “I stayed out for several years,” she explains. “I finally went back in 1997.” It was during this third stint in the armed services that she was deployed for the first time and sent to Ayn al-Asad Iraq during the Iraq War. “Only time I went some place [in the army] was Iraq,” she recalls.
On March 4, 2006, at 46 years old, Christian became the first woman in Arkansas to receive the Purple Heart. She had been in Iraq for a few months when she was wounded by what the military calls an IED (improvised explosive device) while driving a truck during a convoy mission near the Jordan border. “We left camp about 8:30 at night,” she explains. “Around 11:30 or 12 the convoy was stopped because a truck was broken down. It was about 12 when I remember the IED going off,” she says. “When the bomb went off nobody knew what was going on,” she recalled. “That’s when I felt my leg. It felt like it was on fire. Then they got me down in the truck, and they found that I had two holes in my leg and a couple pieces of metal had gone through my leg. And there was another one stuck in my leg about half an inch deep. Then they called a helicopter to come get me.”
Before the bomb injured her leg, Christian worked as a driver for convoy trucks taking food, water and fuel to civilians. Sometimes they’d be gone for two or three hours on runs and sometimes, if they ran into enemy fire, they could be gone for two or three days. It was dangerous work. “Seemed like every time we left the main gate someone was getting fired on or shot at IEDs getting thrown at,” she says. Even at base camp there were dangers. “In our tent areas they were always throwing grenades or IEDS,” she recalls. Once an IED hit a diesel station just fifty feet away. Christian and her unit had made several runs before she was hit, and it certainly wasn’t the first time someone was injured on such a run. “I was the only one hurt that day,” she says, “But there had been some people hurt before me that went home. But that day it was only me.”
The Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the United States Armed Forces who is wounded or killed while serving in the military. The award as we know it today began in 1932 when the criteria were announced in a War Department circular. Any solider who had received combat-related injuries, had been awarded the Army Wound Ribbon or the Meritorious Service Citation Certificate, or were authorized to wear a Wound Chevron after April 5, 1917 (the day before the United States entered World War I) could apply for the award. The award’s precedent was the Badge of Military Merit, an award established by George Washington as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The award—newly defined and given retroactively — was established to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. Around 78,000 retroactive Purple Hearts were awarded between 1932 and 1942. Since then, around 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded to women and men serving in all branches of the military.
The first woman to receive the award was Lt. Annie G. Fox, the chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps at Hickman Field during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even though there is historical documentation for some of the more well-known Purple Heart recipients, there are no central databases for mandatory documentation of the award, and therefore no one knows exactly how many men or women have received the Purple Heart. In recent years there has been an ongoing effort to document the names. Recognizing this as an issue in women’s history, in 2000 the Military Order of the Purple Heart Foundation awarded a grant to Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation to began identifying servicewomen and veterans. Close to 300 women have been identified, but certainly there are thousands more.
Though women have been in the armed forces since before the creation of the Purple Heart, both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have radically redefined the role of women in both military service and direct combat. According to a 2013 report on women in war these wars have “blurred, if not erased, the traditional notions of combat versus noncombat positions. Battle fronts are fluid, and the concept of a defined front line is virtually meaningless,” writes journalist Greg Myre. According to the military, around 280,000 women have been two deployed in the two countries since 2001.
Christian says that when she first enlisted there were around fifteen to twenty other women in her unit. Most were younger, but by the time she deployed there was another woman around her age. Many of the women, she says, had to return to care for their families when alternate caregiver arrangements fell through. She didn’t realize it then, but by the time she was injured she was the only woman left in her group.
After being hit by the IED she spent two days in Camp Korea, near Jordan, before she was flown back to their base came at Alasad. Then she was flown to Germany for surgery. She recalls staying there for three or four weeks before she was sent to San Antonio for physical therapy. She says someone from DC called her sister and her husband, letting them know they weren’t really sure what was going on or where Christian was or even if she had made it through the attack. “My unit shut down for two or three days until they could find out if I was dead or alive,” she recalls. When she got to Germany she was able to contact her unit and her family who’d been waiting fearfully for any news. “When I called my husband from Germany,” she says, “he was thrilled to death.”
Flying back to the states she says she remembers all the grass, the trees, and street signs, all things she hadn’t seen in quite a while. She recalled being driven in the San Antonio traffic, fearful every time they went near an overpass and saw cars coming toward the car. “I ducked down because I said, ‘Oh my Lord they’re gonna throw a bomb.’” It took a while before she got used to being in all the traffic. Arriving in San Antonio in the company of others was a welcome change. A few people from her unit were also in San Antonio, having been wounded previously. She recalls one of them saying, “You look pretty good for a dead woman!,” a reference to the confusion in her unit when she was first wounded.
She stayed in San Antonio for around four weeks receiving rehab on her leg and attending classes to help her re-acclimate to civilian life. She says her leg was still sore and bruised, but she soon felt better. When she was released in September of 2005, her husband came to pick her up and bring her back to Arkansas. “My husband was a truck driver for Tyson, and he came down there and got me,” she recalls. “It was great to be in Arkansas again.” She mentions her in laws and her three sisters — one who lives in Dardanelle, another in Russellville, and one in Scranton — she is very close with all of them.
Thankfully, there was no permanent damage to the bone, only nerve damage. Within a few months she returned to her daily life. “I went back to my unit and went back to normal,” she says. She started doing drill again and returned to her job at Tyson where she has worked as a line worker for the past twelve years. “I went back to work probably about a month after I came back home,” she says. “I went back to the normal routine.” The hardest part was getting used to driving again, she says. While in Iraq an oncoming car almost always meant danger. “If you saw a car coming toward you or running you off the road be careful they’re not showing bombs or shooting at you,” she recalls.
When Christian received her Purple Heart in March 2006, she was surprised to find out she was the first woman in Arkansas to be awarded. “I was excited” she says, pausing. “And also I wasn’t [excited].” Christian is clearly not someone who seeks to draw attention to herself or her achievements. “TV stations and my unit did research and found that out,” she explains. “I couldn’t believe it either. That was a big surprise.”
Christian retired from the military in 2011 after serving a total of 22 years. She regularly attends Veterans parades and continues to work at Tyson in Russellville. When asked how she feels about this prestige she admits she was initially a bit embarrassed by the attention. Though she isn’t one to draw attention to herself, her family is incredibly proud, making sure people in Dardanelle, Russellville and beyond know about their relative. “My husband tells everyone he sees,” she laughs, “And my sisters usually tell everybody.” Being the first woman in Arkansas to be given the Purple Heart even brought members of her family together who hadn’t seen each other in decades.”My three sisters told the whole family and the neighborhood,” she laughs “Thirty to forty people from my family came to see me get it,” she says. “They were all excited. There were a couple of cousins I hadn’t seen in probably 20 years. They all came. It was a pretty big deal.”