Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to receive the Silver Star, the third-highest U.S. decoration for valor, for direct participation in combat. In Afghanistan, Monica Lin Brown was presented the Silver Star for shielding wounded soldiers with her body. In March 2012, the U.S. military had two women, Ann E. Dunwoody and Janet C. Wolfenbarger, with the rank of four-star general. In 2016, Air Force General Lori Robinson became the first female officer to command a major Unified Combatant Command (USNORTHCOM) in the history of the United States Armed Forces.
As the speed of technological advances accelerated in civilian applications, so too warfare became more industralised. The newly invented machine gun and repeating rifle redefined firepower on the battlefield, and, in part, explains the high casualty rates of the American Civil War. The next breakthrough was the conversion of artillery parks from the muzzle loading guns, to the quicker loading breech loading guns with recoiling barrel that allowed quicker aimed fire and use of a shield. The widespread introduction of low smoke (smokeless) propellant powders since the 1880s also allowed for a great improvement of artillery ranges.
In 1974, the first six women naval aviators earned their wings as Navy pilots. The Congressionally mandated prohibition on women in combat places limitations on the pilots' advancement, but at least two retired as captains. In 1989, Captain Linda L. Bray, 29, became the first woman to command American soldiers in battle during the invasion of Panama. The 1991 Gulf War proved to be the pivotal time for the role of women in the U.S. Armed Forces to come to the attention of the world media; there are many reports of women engaging enemy forces during the conflict.
The military organization is characterized by a strict hierarchy divided by military rank, with ranks normally grouped (in descending order of authority) as officers (e.g. Colonel), non-commissioned officers (e.g. Sergeant), and personnel at the lowest rank (e.g. Private Soldier). While senior officers make strategic decisions, subordinated military personnel (soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen) fulfil them. Although rank titles vary by military branch and country, the rank hierarchy is common to all state armed forces worldwide.
Additionally, all services except for the Air Force have an active warrant officer corps. Above the rank of warrant Officer One, these officers may also be commissioned, but usually serve in a more technical and specialized role within units. More recently, they can also serve in more traditional leadership roles associated with the more recognizable officer corps. With one notable exception (Army helicopter and fixed-wing pilots), these officers ordinarily have already been in the military often serving in senior NCO positions in the field in which they later serve as a warrant officer as a technical expert. Most Army pilots have served some enlisted time. It is also possible to enlist, complete basic training, go directly to the Warrant Officer Candidate School at Fort Rucker, Alabama and then on to flight school.