Staff Sgt. Lawrence Jefferson remembers the morning last November in Herat, Afghanistan, when “the whole world just went crazy.”
It was 7:30, and he was in a line of Humvees headed to the airport as the security escort for the U.S. ambassador visiting the area. A car had come screaming around the security truck at the end of the line of military vehicles and was barreling right for his Humvee. His gunner got off some shots, possibly causing the suicide bomber to swerve before detonating the explosives in the car.
When Jefferson regained consciousness, he recalls seeing blue sky, and the head of his sergeant “floating” over him, asking if he was OK. He’d suffered a concussion and damage to his ear. The Idaho National Guardsman was sent to a field hospital and given the chance to return home to Idaho, but he refused: “I didn’t want to leave my guys.”
Master Sgt. David Johnson was wounded by another explosion in another Middle Eastern war zone. His mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle was clearing a route in Ramadi, Iraq, in May 2007 when an improvised explosive device was detonated under it by remote control.
The blast, which killed two other members of the Hayden Lake, Idaho-based 321st Engineers’ Bravo Company, injured his back so badly he didn’t have a choice of staying in Iraq. He was evacuated to a hospital in Germany, and eventually home to Spokane; he was medically retired from the Reserves and also had to give up his civilian job as a commercial truck driver.
Jefferson and Johnson each received Purple Heart medals Wednesday during a Veterans Day service at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, attended by several hundred veterans, family members and supporters. In Coeur d’Alene, about 75 people gathered at Veterans Memorial Park for that city’s annual observance.
Johnson’s medal was pinned on by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who helped secure the award when a problem with paperwork was blocking it.
Jefferson’s medal was pinned on by former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who said he was honored with his first chance to present a Purple Heart.
“He was looking after one of my foreign service brethren,” said Crocker, who retired to Spokane Valley this year. “They were setting up to ambush Ambassador (Christopher) Dell.”
Some 2 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they return to transform the country just as World War II veterans did in the 1940s and ’50s, Crocker told a crowd that included veterans from those wars and every conflict in between. But 36,000 American men and women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’ll need the nation’s help and support, he said.
“Veterans Day isn’t about a car sale. It isn’t about a great deal on a refrigerator,” he said. “It’s about two basic words: thank you.”
People who join the military put their hopes and dreams on hold, and their families sacrifice also, McMorris Rodgers said: “It’s not just a job, it’s a family commitment to our country.”
Sharon Helman, director of the Spokane Veterans Administration Medical Center, said the nation was expanding programs for women veterans, reaching into rural areas and attacking homelessness. “We are going to eliminate homelessness for our veterans,” she said.
In Coeur d’Alene, the Third Street bell was rung 11 times at 11 a.m., marking the armistice of 1918 that ended World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Bob Grendell, commander of American Legion Post 14 in Coeur d’Alene, said they were honoring veterans of all wars.
“We remember how men and women set aside their civilian pursuits to serve our nation’s cause, defending the freedom of mankind and preserving our precious American heritage,” Grendell said.
Veterans recognize that service to the country does not end with their military service, he said, and continue to work toward an “honorable world peace,” profoundly grateful to men and women who gave their lives.
“Public honor must be given where public honor is due – not to the manipulators of the market, the seekers of profit, the power of position,” Grendell said. “Let us honor those who in public service seek not how much they may secure from the nation but how much they can give.”
Staff writer Alison Boggs contributed to this report.