Top of Her Class

As with so many other things she did, Emily Perez sang in the gospel choir at West Point with a bubbly enthusiasm that energized the people around her. A soprano from her first year at the military academy, Perez was given the additional role of tambourine shaker on the spirited numbers. And shake she did. "Sometimes it got to be so vigorous that we'd try to hide it from her," says Marjana Mair, one of Perez's many friends at West Point. On Wednesdays, a smaller group of singers, just altos and sopranos, would meet to rehearse their separate material. "We'd start to sing something and then dance around and get crazy," Mair, who now directs the choir, told NEWSWEEK last week at West Point's Grant Hall, surrounded by cadets and lunch trays.

Perez's death by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad last month came amid a succession of sad milestones for women in the military. She was one of four women soldiers killed in the past month: three in Iraq and a 52-year-old in Afghanistan--the oldest U.S. servicewoman to die in either conflict. Perez was the first woman graduate of West Point killed in Iraq and the 64th woman soldier to die in the war on terrorism (compared with eight in a decade in Vietnam). Although in some circles the unprecedented role women are playing in combat zones is still contentious, the real surprise is how easily we've come to accept women's fighting and dying in war--and, with an overstretched military, how indispensable they've become. Fifteen percent of soldiers in Iraq are women. Department of Defense policy still bars them from serving in the main combat branch, the infantry, but because the front line in Iraq is everywhere all the time, they are just as exposed as most servicemen.

Perez is an example of how the military's greater openness to women helped bring in some of the best and brightest. A star scholar and a talented sprinter, Perez showed no interest in a military career until she was invited to an academic workshop at West Point in her junior year of high school. She went "because it would look good on her résumé," says her father, Daniel Perez, a longtime Army officer who never encouraged his daughter to follow his path.

On arriving, Emily was struck by the beauty of the campus along the Hudson River and the caliber of the graduates. "Most of all, she was drawn to the cadets' camaraderie, the sense that they were like one big family, that they all looked out for each other," her father says. When she came home and told her parents that she'd decided to apply to West Point, "our jaws dropped," he says.

At 5 feet 4 and 110 pounds, a female and a minority, she wasn't your typical West Pointer. But Perez was already displaying leadership skills that the institution--and later the Army's Medical Service Corps--would prize. "She had this air of responsibility and seriousness about her," says Scott Silverstone, who taught Perez in his international-relations seminar, where questions about the invasion of Iraq and the broader war on terror were debated. Silverstone remembers Perez "tearing into the issues with a tremendous confidence and enthusiasm." Those qualities prompted her peers to elect her to the second highest position a cadet can hold, brigade sergeant major.

By her senior year, Perez knew she would soon be in Iraq. While waiting for her deployment overseas, Perez got a call from a bone-marrow group she'd registered with saying she was a match and asking her to donate before heading abroad. "I didn't want her to do it only a month before she was going to Iraq," says Perez's mother, Vicki. "But she had no hesitation. She told me, 'If I have a chance to save someone's life, I'm going to do it'."

Weeks ago, a bad feeling came over Vicki while she watched war news on TV. She woke up at 3 a.m. and e-mailed Emily: "Please respond ASAP. I need to know you're alright." The return e-mail popped up within hours. "Ma, stop listening to the news," Emily wrote. "The reality is, if anything happens to me, two officers will come to the door and one of them will be a chaplain." When the team arrived weeks later, Vicki Perez knew what it meant. "I think she was preparing me the best she could," she says.