UDSB hon­ors Pur­ple Heart re­cip­i­ent

The Ambler Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - By Linda Finarelli

“As soon as you leave ‘the wire’ you’re be­ing watched and just wait­ing for them to hit you … mor­tar, rock­ets, IEDs. As soon as that hap­pens, all fear goes away … you’re WDk­inJ WKH fiJKW WR WKH HnHPy.”

Sit­ting in his par­ents’ home in Fort Wash­ing­ton Mon­day morn­ing, U.S. Army Sgt. Eric Petersen de­scribed his life as a tur­ret gun­ner in Com­pany D, 1st Bat­tal­ion, 28th In­fantry while de­ployed in Afghanistan this year. His unit’s mis­sion was high value tarJHWV — “WR find WKH EDd Juy … FOHDU RuW WKH YDOOHy.”

That mis­sion came to an end for Petersen two months ago when his ar­mored SUV was blown up while go­ing over a re­motely det­o­nated im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice.

2I WKH fiYH in KiV YHKiFOH, RnOy 3Htersen and the ra­dio man, both criti-

cally injured, sur­vived. Petersen lost his right eye, had a trau­matic brain in­jury and re­quired surgery on his left knee and right el­bow. it. Todd iambka, the pla­toon leader who had re­cently joined the unit; the driver, Pfc. Je­sus iopez, “an awe­some sol­dier” with whom Petersen had be­come good friends; and their Afghan in­ter­preter, “his dream was to move to Amer­ica when the war was over,” were killed.

Petersen was sub­se­quently awarded the Pur­ple Heart and Army Com­bat In­fantry­man Badge. And Mon­day night, the 2005 Up­per Dublin High School grad was pre­sented The Fly­ing Car­di­nal Award at the dis­trict’s school board meet­ing. As the young man in his Army fa­tigues en­tered the room, mem­bers of the high school band played, the cheer­lead­ers cheered and the board and au­di­ence gave him a stand­ing ova­tion.

GDUy HLWH, 3HWHUVHn’V fiIWK-JUDGH teacher whom, he said, had in­spired him, noted he and Petersen, who went on to be a mem­ber of the ice hockey team in high school, had “bonded over our in­ter­est in hockey.”

“As teach­ers we do the best job we can with­out know­ing what will come for our students,” Hite said. “They be­come our heroes. It is an honor and a priv­i­lege for me to say thank you for be­ing my hero.”

Su­per­in­ten­dent Michael Pladus pre­sented the award on be­half of the dis­trict “in recog­ni­tion of [Petersen’s] ded­i­ca­tion, valor and ser­vice to our coun­try,” adding, “You are truly one of Up­per DubOLn’V DnG RuU nDWLRn’V finHVW.”

But the 26-year-old sol­dier down­played the recog­ni­tion.

“I’m home and safe. We can’t for­get about the guys over there. TKHy’UH VWLOO WDNLnJ WKH fiJKW,” Petersen said. “I don’t see my­self as a hero. it. iambka and iopez, those guys are the heroes.

“They gave it all. I’m still here; WKHy PDGH WKH uOWLPDWH VDFUL­fiFH,” Petersen said Mon­day morn­ing, re­call­ing the day of the deadly at­tack.

There were four vil­lages in the val­ley in Pak­tika prov­ince on the eastern bor­der with Pak­istan where the Tal­iban had “set up shop,” Petersen said, and his com­pany would leave “the wire” — WKH FRn­finHV RI WKH PLOLWDUy base — to go to the vil­lages to talk to the elders and of­fer help with any­thing they might need. Af­ter leav­ing a vil­lage, the unit RIWHn FDPH unGHU fiUH, “DnyWKLnJ from pop-shots to full-blown com­bat.”

From May 13 of this year, that was his life, Petersen said. On Aug. 1 it all changed. “We were in that val­ley, at a vil­lage for around three hours, leav­ing for the day,” he said. “We were go­ing through a ma­jor choke point, go­ing back to base, with our eyes on the low ground,” where the am­bushes of­ten came from, “and that’s the last I re­mem­ber un­til I woke up at Wal­ter Reed [Army Hospi­tal].”

When he awoke, he re­al­ized he was in a hospi­tal and “was yHOOLnJ IRU WKH nuUVH” WR finG RuW where the oth­ers in his ve­hi­cle were, but they didn’t know, he said. “My unit in Afghanistan found out I woke up and ‘my boys’ called and painted a pic­ture of what hap­pened.”

Petersen was in the sec­ond of the four-ve­hi­cle con­voy, which may have been tar­geted for hav­ing the pla­toon com­man­der in it, and the Jun­nHU Ln WKH fiUVW YHKLFOH WROG KLP “he looked back and saw a gi­ant cloud of dust and our ve­hi­cle was up­side down, ripped to pieces.”

Peter­son was mede­vac’d to Ba­gram Air Base in Afghanistan, where his eye, too dam­aged to save, was re­moved, and he was ven­ti­lated and put in a med­i­cally LnGuFHG FRPD DnG flRwn WR LDnGs­tuhl Med­i­cal Cen­ter in der­many for fur­ther treat­ment, his fa­ther, keil Petersen, said in a phone in­ter­view. Af­ter four days, he wDV flRwn WR WDOWHU 5HHG, wKHUH eight ti­ta­nium plates were in­serted in the right side of his face dur­ing an eight-hour surgery to sup­port the cheek and eye socket.

“I woke up a cou­ple days be­fore the surgery and my face was com­pletely caved in, and I thought, ‘I’m go­ing to be one ugly guy,’” Petersen said, but “they did an amaz­ing job,” he said. Though he wLOO bH fiWWHG wLWK D SURVWKHWLF HyH, his eye­lid will re­main closed, so in or­der to fur­ther keep out dirt, he plans to continue to wear an eye­patch, he said.

Af­ter two months at Wal­ter Reed, he was sent to Mc­duire VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Rich­mond, Va., for two and a half weeks for trau­matic brain in­jury treat­ment “as a safety pre­cau­tion,” Petersen said. Sub­se­quently cleared of TBI, he went back to Wal­ter Reed and was sent home on a re­cu­per­a­tion leave un­til early kovem­ber when he will re­turn to Fort Ri­ley, Kan., where his com­pany is based.

“iearn­ing what hap­pened to ev­ery­one else and the ra­dio man [who is still in a hospi­tal in Texas], I don’t know how I’m in the shape I’m in,” Petersen said. “How am I alive?”

But he re­mains un­de­terred and plans to re-up for an­other three years as soon as he passes his med­i­cal re­view and will “re­main as an in­fantry­man … I couldn’t do any other job.” He plans to take a lead­er­ship course and af­ter be­ing pro­moted to staff sergeant, go to Fort Camp­bell, Ky., to “jump school,” and hav­ing read of an­other ca­reer sol­dier with one eye, hopes to go to Ranger school.

Ad­mi­ral Wil­liam McRaven, com­man­der of the U.S. Spe­cial Forces Com­mand, whom Petersen met at a re­cent gala spon­sored by the Fam­i­lies of the Wounded Fund, has of­fered his as­sis­tance and his par­ents are be­hind him.

It was March 2003 when, an 11th-grader at the time, he de­cided on a mil­i­tary ca­reer, Petersen said. Watch­ing the in­va­sion of Iraq on TV, he said he saw young sol­diers “in the real world … fiJKWLnJ DnG GyLnJ, yRunJ, Ln shape, healthy Amer­i­cans, and I can just sit here.”

“You have to have sol­diers,” he said, and thought, “If I don’t do it, who else will? … Why not me? I can do it.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school he joined the Marines, and af­ter his three-year stint, missed it and de­cided to go back, join­ing the Army in 2009. Fol­low­ing Air­borne School and about eight months in a spe­cial forces course, he went to Korea and within nine months was pro­moted to sergeant.

“I love be­ing an kCO,” Petersen said. “iead­ing and train­ing sol­diers, they’re the back­bone of the Army.

“I’ve been told by guys that I’ve trained I’m the best kCO they’ve had or they’ve learned more from me than any other kCO; that means a lot to me.”

Gazette staff photo by BOB RAINES

Up­per Dublin Su­per­in­ten­dent Michael Pladus shakes hands with Sgt. Eric Petersen fol­low­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion of the Fly­ing Car­di­nal Award as the Up­per Dublin School Board gives Peter­son a stand­ing ova­tion Mon­day evening. A 2005 grad­u­ate of Up­per Dublin High School, Peter­son was awarded a Pur­ple Heart for in­juries sus­tained in Afghanistan, in­clud­ing the loss of his right eye.

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