When Jessica Landeros raised her right hand and joined the Navy at age 19 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she had no idea she would become a three-tour combat veteran, a wounded warrior, and a pioneer for equality.
The first American woman to serve in combat during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, Landeros helped pave the way for the recent decision to officially allow women on the front lines in all wars beginning in 2016.
As part of a construction battalion tasked with building bases and other infrastructure in a military theater, five-foot-two, 100-pound Landeros was tapped for two stereotypically unfeminine jobs: plumber and convoy machine gunner. Embedded for months at a time in places most people only read about – often as the only Western woman among hundreds of men – she witnessed countless acts of heroism and leadership. But one day during her final deployment, Landeros herself had to step up and lead in the line of fire.
“I did what any smart woman would do: I appealed to their machismo ... I reminded them how scared the poor road workers were, and how we were able to handle it because we were used to this stuff. And it worked. You could literally see their chests swell and their focus return.
- Jessica Landeros
Part of Landeros’ team’s job was providing nighttime security escorts for supply vehicles and personnel throughout the perilous Al Anbar province. But one summer day in 2006, the team was assigned daytime security detail for a crew repairing a critical road damaged by bombs. Three hours into the mission, a loud explosion and a plume of black smoke erupted less than 25 meters from Landeros’ vehicle, where she was manning her turret gun.
“I jerked my head around in time to see a Hum-V tire reach its apex at 15 feet skyward,” she recalls. “Then I saw bodies writhing in the sand like fish out of water; two teammates had been hit. One of them was pulling a knee to his chin; the other was flailing as though his whole body was suffering at once. Even today I can’t drown out their screams. I felt my chest tighten as I flashed back to an earlier deployment when one of my teammates, my friend, lost his life to a mortar round. But I quickly snapped back to reality and forced myself to look away from my fallen colleagues and remember my mission: provide security for the road workers and now for the wounded and the medics who were moving them to safety. I grabbed my radio and shouted to the gunners to keep their sector of fire.”
Having successfully conducted her life "Mission First" during her previous two combat tours, Landeros understood the weight of her demeanor at this critical moment. She had recently transferred to this battalion of 625 personnel – none of whom had experience in the region. As potshots from AK-47s came in from the field, Landeros suddenly realized that the guys inside her truck had not moved since the commotion started. She looked down to find three frozen, wide-eyed men just beginning to thaw. She knew they needed to be engaged to stay safe and sane.
Landeros shook one by the shoulder and asked him to man the gun. He nodded resolutely and moved into position. Then she suggested that the second teammate help move equipment from the downed truck to their vehicle for safekeeping. He took off eagerly. She turned to the third.
“Ryan, were the guys still moving when they were hauled off?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“That’s good,” Landeros replied. “A moving person is a living person. They'll be OK. Hurry, make room for their equipment."
It didn't take long for the men to complete Landeros’ petty assignments, and she soon noticed that the distractions were quickly wearing off; they were slipping into the dangerous territory of their own dark thoughts. She knew from experience that it was too soon for them to let their emotions take hold. If they were going to fulfill their mission, she needed them to stay in the moment and not become numbed by grief or fear.
“So I did what any smart woman would do: I appealed to their machismo,” Landeros said. “I reminded them how scared the poor road workers were, and how we were able to handle it because we were used to this stuff. I convinced them it was our responsibility to remain calm and in control, because the workers were terrified. And it worked. You could literally see their chests swell and their focus return. That was all it took to occupy them until we made it safely back to Camp Fallujah a few hours later.”
Anyone who has been in the military will tell you that one of the first things you learn in boot camp is that the mission is everything. Without it, people are left to flounder – and ultimately to fail. However, as Landeros’ experience demonstrates, missions are more than just a set of objectives. A mission cannot be accomplished without people, and people cannot work to full capacity if they are not tasked in a way that challenges them and channels their strengths.
As a woman on the front line, Jessica is the embodiment of an extraordinarily powerful leadership trait: the ability, despite societal and historical barriers, to articulate the mission and instill in others the passion to get the job done. It is that ability to issue the challenge and set the stage for its successful completion that is the mark of a true leader – a leader like Jessica Landeros.
Charles Garcia, CEO of Garcia Trujillo Holdings, has served in the administration of four presidents. He is the best-selling author of two leadership books and was named in the book "Hispanics in the USA: Making History" as one of 14 Hispanic role models for the nation books. Follow him on Twitter: @charlespgarcia.