Sgt. Justin Souder, of Purdy, is merely one example of the brave men and women serving in America's armed forces. He was recently awarded the Bronze Star for heroic or meritorious service while serving his country in war-torn Afghanistan.
Souder was driving a Buffalo Armored Vehicle, taking the lead in a convoy of vehicles searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
and took a direct hit from such a device coming out of a dry riverbed in Afghanistan last July.
"It's classed as the most dangerous job in the world," Souder said. "The Buffalo has an arm on it so when we come up on something, we can turn it over and look at it. That area has a huge Taliban population. Everybody hated us."
The job is an important one in today's military environment where it is estimated that for each IED found, 1.7 lives are saved.
"If we find an explosive device, we wait until EOD gets there to blow it up in place," Souder said. EOD is the explosive ordinance disposal unit tasked with removal of explosive devices from main travel routes in war zones.
"We'd received intel that there was a device in the area, and I asked my platoon leader to let me take the lead in the Buffalo," Souder said of the experience. "The Buffalo is designed to take abigger hit. It's an 84,000-pound vehicle. When we hit the IED, it threw us 13 feet into the air. There were three guys in there, and we were all knocked out instantly."
Buffalo Armored Vehicles are designed to withstand blasts and maintain functionality while neutralizing explosive threats from the battlefield.
"That was an $82 million vehicle with about 2,000 miles on it," he said. "It was brand new."
Once the crew was removed from the Buffalo, others in the platoon worked to remove the Buffalo from the creek bed.
"They had to tow it out," Souder said. "It was inoperable."
Souder was taken to a base hospital where he remained unconscious for some time. When he finally woke, he immediately took steps to contact his wife, Amanda.
"I didn't know it, but my son, Robert, was on the Internet," Souder said. "I thought I was talking to my wife. So he was actually the first one who knew anything about it. I think his first words
were, 'That sucks.'"
"It was scary," Robert, age 8, said. "I went and got my mom."
Military bases go to a blackout status when they have a member killed in action. That prevents someone from outside the immediate family of the victim from finding out about the casualty and reporting it to family members before official notification can be made.
"We knew we hadn't heard from him for several days, and we knew something had happened," said Souder's mother, Carol Stockton. "We just didn't know what."
Amber and Carol had very different methods of coping with Souder's deployment. Amber avoided all news broadcasts. Carol listened to every available bit of news from halfway around the world on a daily basis.
"Your heart just drops," Amber said of hearing news reports concerning soldiers killed in action. "You just never know."
"It's hard," said Carol. "We don't know what's going on over there. You hear bad things on television, and you don't know if there will be a knock at the door."
For Souder, it was just another day at work.
"I've been blown up four times in Iraq and eight times this year in Afghanistan," he said. "I've had several concussions. This last one was the worst.
"At first, it's nerve wracking," Souder said. "Then you become numb. It becomes a job."
Souder and his crew served 12 months in Iraq, discovering and destroying 120 explosive devices over the course of 186 missions. The company total for finding and destroying explosives for that time period was over 300. He just returned from an 11-month deployment to Afghanistan. While there, his crew found 172 IEDs.
"You get numb to it," Souder said. "Our forward operations base was attacked by mortars and rockets for about 10 hours one day, and, instead of bunking down, some of us were standing outside watching it. You get the feeling, 'It's not going to happen to me.' It was pretty crazy."
For his actions in volunteering to take the lead on the mission and the subsequent events of that day, Souder's platoon leader recommended Souder be awarded the Bronze Star.
Awarded for bravery, the Bronze Star is the fourth-highest combat award of the U.S. Armed Forces and the ninth highest military award, including both combat and non-combat awards, in the order of U.S. military decorations.
With 18 months remaining on his tour of duty, Souder and his family are looking forward to his serving his remaining military duty stateside.
"I'll be training new troops," Souder said. "I'll either be sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso or to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Units coming through will be in specialty training for about one month."
Souder and his family are relieved he is returning stateside.
"I think it's great," said Carol. "I can't take another year of this. What's sad is the way it changes your kids. He used to be so happy-go-lucky. And he's not anymore."
Is the somber attitude a result of maturity or perhaps seeing too much of the grim realities of war?
"It's both, I think," Souder said. "They say that anyone who has been to war has been changed forever. My wife says I've changed. I have the occasional bad dream. But I've been pretty lucky so far.
"I feel like my luck is running out," he continued. "Motorcycles are my passion. When I get out of the Army, I plan go to school in Glendale, Az., to become a motorcycle technician."
"I am so proud of him," said Carol. "I've said a lot of prayers and shed a lot of tears. I know what other families are going through with their children going in now. It's hard."
"I'd rather not go back," Souder said. "But if necessary, I would go back in a heartbeat. It's my job."