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Thursday, February 05, 2004

Army Postal Soldiers Earn Valor in Iraq
By Staff Sgt. Nate Orme
3rd Personnel Command PAO

BAGHDAD, Iraq --"I told the two Iraqi males to get in the back of the truck," said Capt. Juan David Pena, displaying concern for the property of two innocent strangers while in the midst of commandeering their truck at gunpoint during an anti-Coalition ambush of Pena's small reconnaissance convoy.

Pena was able to take control of the truck and extract himself, two other soldiers, and the body of a civilian contractor out of the ambush.
For their performance "in keeping with the highest traditions of military service" three soldiers from the 461st Personnel Services Battalion-Pena , Chief Warrant Officer 3 Robert Meyerhoff and Spc. Travis Duarte-have each been approved to receive the Bronze Star for Valor. Meyerhoff has also been approved for the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the ambush.

The events began the morning of Sept. 3, explained Meyerhoff and Pena recently, soon after their convoy of two non-tactical vehicles (i.e., SUVs) left the secure confines of the joint military mail terminal at the Baghdad International Airport. They were headed to the new Army post office at a camp near the ancient city of Babylon, mapping out a route along the way to be used for mail delivery by KBR truck drivers.

Shortly after heading out onto a major highway, Meyerhoff determined they needed to be going in the other direction. While making a U-turn, the convoy was suddenly hit by a barrage of bullets, instantly killing Vernon Gaston, a civilian KBR employee, who was driving the vehicle with Meyerhoff, Pena and Duarte.

Duarte, carrying the substantial power of a squad automatic weapon, bailed out as the vehicle, without driver, careened over a berm and continued to attract bullets. Meyerhoff then jumped out and exchanged fire with the suspected enemy location, followed seconds later by Pena exiting the besieged vehicle.
Duarte quickly found cover in a ditch and began to return fire with his SAW, providing cover for the two other men. Meyerhoff, injured in the calf where a bullet had ripped through him during the first volley, began to force himself toward the vehicle, now stopped where it had hit a wall. When Meyerhoff collapsed on his leg, Pena rushed out and dragged him by his flack jacket the rest of the way, and both took cover behind the vehicle. Separately, each of them checked on Gaston and determined he was dead-a bullet had pierced his temple just under his Kevlar helmet. The two then assessed their situation.

Unable to contact the other vehicle, which escaped the ambush but was unable to assist, Pena, with two good legs, dashed over to Duarte, while Duarte with SAW and Meyerhoff with M-15 assult rifleprovided him cover. After a few moments, Meyerhoff, summoning untapped adrenaline, made a mad limp over to the other two. Pena, M-16 in hand, then went to the road, heavy with moving traffic, and stopped a small truck. The two young, scared Iraqi males inside complied with Pena's orders to get in the back. Soon, Meyerhoff and Duarte were also in the truck, Duarte in the back with the two Iraqis, where he told his fellow soldiers that he "had their back."

The three went back to the crashed vehicle and collected Gaston's body, Meyerhoff providing cover while struggling with the pain in his leg that was making him dizzy and near to passing out.

Once back on the road, Pena drove against traffic for over a mile, with Meyerhoff momentarily forgetting his bloody leg while directing people to move out of the way. Finally, the truck was able to cross to the right side of the road. After an equal distance, the truck reached a military compound where the soldiers fired a few rounds to signal someone's attention. A passing military convoy saw their distress and assisted them to the 407th Forward Support Battalion encampment nearby. The two young Iraqis then got their truck back.
Meyerhoff was taken to the trauma center, followed by surgery. Days later he would be sent to Germany and eventually to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. for further treatment. Meanwhile, Pena and Duarte went back to the mail terminal at the airport and both soon were back to work.

"I didn't want to stay in the states," said Meyerhoff, a former Marine rifleman who served in Vietnam in `68-`69. "The mission wasn't accomplished. I got a medical clearance to get back. I have to do therapy for my leg is all."

"Really, it was more of a sense of honor (to return)-to finish the mission," said Meyerhoff. "When you're in the military, you have two families. Even when home, you miss the relationships and camaraderie."

Meyerhoff credits that feeling to the collaborative environment created by Lt. Col. Steven Heggen, commander of the 461st PSB, a Reserve unit from Decatur, Ga.

"Col. Heggen's leadership allows people to expand and take on additional responsibilities. His leadership style really aids in the motivation and dedication of soldiers. We work as a team. When the ambush happened, we didn't second guess each other. The trust was already there," Meyerhoff explained.

Before returning to Iraq, Meyerhoff was able to visit his wife and 16-year-old son at home in Valle Crucis, N.C., welcomed by the sight of trees lined with yellow ribbons along his driveway and neighbors and friends deluging the Meyerhoffs with home-cooked dinners, wine and gifts.

Pena also went home, but later, on regular rest and recuperation leave over Christmas. There, he was greeted first by family at the airport and then by neighbors waiting at the entrance of his Atlanta, Ga., neighborhood.

Unlike Meyerhoff, who, with a wink, yarned that getting shot at was old hat from his "Nam" days, Pena said the experience changed him.

"It made me more alert every time we go out," Pena said. "You realize how quickly life can change in a matter of seconds. It felt good to be around someone you knew under fire. Though injured, he (Meyerhoff) had my back. And Spc. Duarte reacted fearlessly and without hesitation."

Pena and Meyerhoff's words evoked the American spirit of fairness and decency displayed even during war-hard to imagine in most other militaries-that caused Pena to remember that the two scared Iraqis would want their vehicle back after it was briefly commandeered. It is a poignant example of the fundamental difference between the Americans, who do not blame average Iraqis for the criminal, world-destabilizing behavior of their now-deposed leadership, and the few "dead-enders" in Iraq who would kill anyone-man, woman, child, friend, ethnic foe-without compunction to achieve their tortured goals.

Killed KBR driver, Vernon Gaston, 46, who had served on the Lampasas, Texas, city council back home, was laid to rest at the First Baptist Church in Lampasas on Sept. 12. He is survived by his three sons, a daughter and his wife Kaye.

All three soon-to-be-decorated soldiers are back working at the mail terminal alongside KBR employees, ensuring that thousands of soldiers receive their mail while in Iraq. The three are scheduled to remain in the Operation Iraqi Freedom theater until the 461st PSB returns this spring.

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