UDSB honors Purple Heart recipient
“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.”
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.