Eleven Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers from the 951st Engineer Company (Sapper) received the Purple Heart Medal during a ceremony held Friday (Aug. 6), which recognized their heroic actions during their 2009 deployment to Afghanistan.
The 951st, based in Rhinelander, was assigned to Task Force Pirate and took on a very dangerous and tough mission – clearing improvised explosive devices from roads in Afghanistan. A total of 17 Soldiers in the unit earned the medal as a result of the deployment. President Barack Obama presented a Purple Heart medal to Spc. Matthew Berth at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s USO Warrior Center June 5, where Berth was being treated for injuries from an attack during a route clearing mission.
All Soldiers of the 951st were also awarded the Valorous Unit award – the second highest Army unit decoration – which recognizes units that display extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy. Among awards earned by the 951st during its deployment: 100 combat action badges, four combat medic badges, 21 Bronze Stars, four Bronze Stars with Valor devices, and five Army Commendation Medals with Valor devices.
“Most medals are worn with pride for a job well done for support [a Soldier has] given to fellow Soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard. “There’s one medal however, that no Soldier ever truly wants to earn – that’s the Purple Heart. As distinctive and special as this award is, you don’t pay for it by performance or by valor, you pay for it with your blood.”
Anderson recognized the unit for their “tremendous job in Afghanistan,” stating that because of what they accomplished in theater, many other service members were able to return from their deployments safely.
“Your efforts were not without great sacrifice, however,” Anderson added, acknowledging Sgt. Ryan Adams, a unit member killed in action Oct. 2, 2009 in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Adams’ parents attended the ceremony.
Spc. T.J. Fecteau, a combat engineer from Merrill, was one of the unit members to receive his Purple Heart medal Friday night.
“I feel relieved to be home, but I still sometimes wish I was over there,” Fecteau said.
Fecteau drove a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle on route clearance missions during the deployment. The injuries he sustained when a 200-pound IED destroyed his vehicle Sept. 8, 2009 would send Fecteau stateside for medical treatment. The blast also injured his gunner, Sgt. Phil Poitra and truck commander Sgt. 1st Class Chet Millard. Photos of the crew after that attack appeared on the cover and inside the Oct. 12, 2009 issue of TIME magazine.
“All three of us were [medically evacuated],” Fecteau recalled. “I was looking around while I was on the stretcher and saw how our platoon really pulled together.”
“I think [what we went through] has made all of us much closer,” he explained. “This is the best group of guys I could have chosen to deploy with. The camaraderie is the best part of being with the 951st – these guys are all my brothers-in-arms.”
Capt. Brian Barth, a Neilsville resident who served as company commander during the unit’s deployment, attended the ceremony and praised the Soldiers for their strength.
“It’s an honor to see the awards that these Soldiers have earned,” Barth said. “When I took command of the company, I said to myself, if I ever had to deploy, this was the unit I wanted to do it with because of the [strength of the] non-commissioned officers, the Midwest work ethic and no nonsense ‘get things done’ attitude that every Soldier wants to be a part of. To lead these Soldiers in a deployment has been amazing.”
“We knew we were sending our very best,” Anderson said of the unit. “What we’re doing tonight demonstrates what a truly phenomenal job these men did. It may be hard sometimes to fathom what you accomplished; you’re probably going through a lot individually and as a unit. Your accomplishments have not gone unnoticed.”