By Ed Brock
Linda Bray stepped inadvertently into history during the United States' December 1989 invasion of Panama.
It all happened when Bray, serving as a U.S. Army captain and commanding the 988th Military Police Company out of Fort Benning, was sent to take control of a Panamanian Defense Forces' dog kennel in the middle of Operation Just Cause, America's effort to oust then Panamanian dictator Manuel Norieaga.
"When we went in there wasn't supposed to be a whole lot of hostility," said Bray, sitting in an office at Keller-Williams Real Estate in Stockbridge.
But Bray, now 43 and a newly-hired realtor at Keller-Williams, said she and her troops did encounter resistance from PDF Special Forces who were apparently using the kennels as a barracks.
It was 1:30 a.m. in a strange, tropical Central American country and Bray found herself with a fight on her hands.
"All I could concentrate on was where were the people, were they in the right place, did we cover the rear, did we cut off communications (for the enemy)?" Bray said.
In fact, cutting off the communications was one of Bray's first direct acts of heroism in the unexpected battle. She ran into the kennel under cover of darkness and used a Swiss Army knife to cut the phone lines.
She recalls that incident with a chuckle.
"Some of those things could have turned into a catastrophe, but everything turned out OK," Bray said.
Then it was time to lead the 35 or 40 troops participating in the raid to victory. Bray and one of the soldiers jumped into a Humvee and the soldier drove while Bray opened fire with the vehicle's .50-caliber machine gun.
"The driver and I charged down the gate and the soldiers came in behind us, using the Humvee for cover," Bray said.
It was a charge that would land Bray in the media spotlight as the first woman to lead U.S. troops into combat. At the time, women were not supposed to serve in combat positions, and as an MP Bray was considered to be in a non-combatant mission.
Then-Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder pushed for legislation to open up all jobs in the Army to women, citing Bray's case as proof that the combat exclusion policies didn't keep women out of combat but did limit their opportunities in service.
Bray had to ride out several conflicts connected to the controversy. The new Panamanian government tried to sue her after finding all the dogs in the kennel had been shot in the head. Bray was cleared when it was revealed that the captain of a MP unit that replaced hers at the kennel for clean-up operations shot the dogs because they were in poor condition.
But things have changed since Bray joined the Army out of the ROTC program in 1979. When she was sent for basic training the Army still didn't know how to house the female recruits, whether to separate the regular barracks with plywood, put the women upstairs or to give them their own barracks.
The first idea failed because holes "mysteriously appeared" in the plywood and putting the women upstairs made them late for assemblies, so they went with the third option. They also didn't have a uniform in Bray's size and she trained in tennis shoes for the first days while the Army had combat boots special-made for her.
"That was an interesting summer," Bray said.
Now Bray was surprised and pleased to see a woman, Col. Angela Manos, take charge of the Army Garrison Fort McPherson in East Point and Fort Gillem in Forest Park.
"Women have come a long way," Bray said. "I was one of the first steps."
In 1991 Bray was discharged from the Army, followed a year later by her husband John Bray. The Brays loved Georgia, although she is from Butner, N.C. and he is from California, so they found jobs here and now live in unincorporated Stockbridge.
Now John Bray works as a third-party warehouse manager for a company contracted by the Solo Cup company in Jonesboro. She says she's found a new family in the Keller-Williams company, her first job in the real estate business.
"I had always considered real estate," Bray said. "(The school for realtor training) was probably one of the hardest things I did since I got out of the military, but I'm glad I did it."
Roger Searcy, team leader and broker at Keller-Williams, is also glad Bray has joined their team.
"I thought any woman who can lead troops into combat can sure sell real estate," Searcy said.
Searcy has even contacted the Keller-Williams national offices about putting a story on Bray in the company newsletter.
"One of the things Keller-Williams likes to do is support the Army and troops," Searcy said. "So they were really excited about it."
While Bray's story was soon overshadowed by others of women in combat during Desert Storm and subsequent military actions, Bray has received offers to turn her story into a movie.
"They were going to get Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman, to play me," Bray said.
She would still like to write a book someday, Bray said.
Meanwhile, Bray was surprised recently to discover that her celebrity star had not yet faded. While talking to one of her female clients who was looking to sell her home, the conversation turned to the fact that the client had also served in the Army as an MP.
At one point Bray told the woman that she had served in the Panama operation.
"She looked at me and said ?Oh my God, you're her! Oh my God, you're everyone's hero!'" Bray said. "That was exciting for me that day."