DRAPER — For acts of bravery — from using their own bodies to shield injured comrades to disregarding their own wounds to return fire — 19 soldiers of a special forces unit of the Utah National Guard on Sunday were awarded for their valor during a 2017 deployment to Afghanistan.
Four of the soldiers of the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group received Silver Stars — the nation's third highest award for valor in combat.
Three were awarded the Purple Heart, an award for those wounded or killed in action. Five received the Bronze Star with "V" device, and seven were awarded the Army Commendation Medal with "V" device, for other acts of heroism.
Several Utah soldiers from two teams deployed to Afghanistan last year returned home wounded, and one Utah Guard Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler — who had been posthumously recognized with a Purple Heart — died in combat.
One by one as they were called to the stage during the ceremony at Utah National Guard Headquarters, Gov. Gary Herbert pinned the awards to each of the soldiers' chests.
"It's incredibly humbling," said Staff Sgt. Walrath, one of the four recipients of the Silver Star, in an interview after the ceremony. The Guard would not release first names of those honored for security reasons. "I really didn't do anything more than my job, and that's not me being humble, that's just the fact."
Walrath was serving as a medical sergeant during a special forces operation on Aug. 16 when an explosive weapon detonated inside a building where his team had been preparing to occupy. Four members of the team were killed and more than 30 others — including Walrath — were injured.
Despite "hundreds of fragments of shrapnel and concrete in his body," Walrath "completely disregarded his own suffering to immerse himself in the care of his wounded comrades," Lt. Col. Steven Fairbourn announced as the governor pinned the Silver Star to Walrath's chest.
As bullets continued to fly, Walrath at one point used his own body to shield a patient from an incoming rocket-propelled grenade.
"In the midst of chaos of incoming fire and screams of wounded men, (Walrath) calmly and effectively communicated with caregivers under his direction," Fairbourn said.
Walrath said he was "very honored" by the award, but he gave more credit to his teammates. "There's a definite reason this many valor awards went to these two teams," he said. "(They're) absolutely outstanding individuals. I'm really just proud to have served with them."
Other Silver Star recipients included Staff Sgt. Caldwell — who was also awarded a Purple Heart — for reacting quickly amid the chaos and panic of the Aug. 16 explosion to help manage the wounded, and Sgt. 1st Class Madsen, who, despite his wounds, crawled into an armored vehicle to return fire.
Capt. Nelson was also awarded a Silver Star, for showing bravery in May, when his team was ambushed during a clearance operation of an enemy stronghold. When a teammate was shot in the head by a sniper, Nelson "displayed a disregard for his own safety as he immediately ran to the aid" of the wounded soldier, and later exposed himself to enemy fire to rally forces.
"His actions inspired many to fight back in the face of overwhelming and unrelenting enemy fire ensuring the safe evacuation of a critically wounded U.S. casualty," Fairbourn said.
Other award recipients included:
- Staff Sgt. Edwards, Bronze Star with "V" device
- Staff Sgt. Kennington, Bronze Star with "V" device
- Sgt. 1st Class Mellor, Bronze Star with "V" device
- Master Sgt. Muramoto, Bronze Star with "V" device
- Sgt. 1st Class Speck, Bronze Star with "V" device
- Staff Sgt. Ashford, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Staff Sgt. Flores, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Sgt. Major Gifford, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Staff Sgt. Lake, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Sgt. Maj. Miller, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Staff Sgt. Murray, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Sgt. 1st Class Wilcox, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device
- Staff Sgt. Ashford, Purple Heart
- Staff Sgt. Caldwell, Purple Heart
- Sgt. Maj. Gifford, Purple Heart
Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, said it's "humbling" to recognize the soldiers.
"When the chips were down, when the bullets were flying and people were dying all around them, they did the right thing," Burton said. "They exhibited tremendous bravery to protect their own and to take the initiative from the enemy, so I couldn't be more proud today."5 comments on this story
Herbert said teams like the Utah National Guard's special forces unit protect the U.S.'s freedom and liberty — "and at a very difficult time," he said, noting that the War on Terror is no "typical" war.
"We sleep well at night, all of us, because we know there are people on guard in uniforms saying: 'Not on my watch,'" the governor said. "We will not forget, we cannot forget, and we'll make sure we continue to remind each other of the service and sacrifice of those that serve."