CAMP RIPLEY, MINN. - While providing convoy security just inside the Iraq border on Veterans Day 2011, a group from Charlie Company of the Minnesota National Guard came to a halt after a flat tire halted progress. Off in the distance, a cloud of smoke erupted. Their first thought, remembered Sgt. Shawn Schmidt, was that a roadside bomb had gone off. But the sound and the smoke pluming in the road nearby seemed different.
During the final days of the Iraq war, the team had come across a head-on crash involving Iraqi citizens. One van was tipped on its side with flames shooting from its engine. In total, more than 16 civilians were injured or trapped. With traffic backing up in this still-volatile area, three Minnesota soldiers came to the aid of the citizens in a country weary of Americans.
The soldiers -- Schmidt, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Purkat and Specialist Christopher Edwards -- were credited with pulling the citizens from the burning wreckage, providing medical assistance and helping Iraqi police take the injured to a local hospital.
On Saturday, the three soldiers, members of the Duluth-based 1st Squadron, 94th Cavalry were awarded the Soldier's Medal for their actions that day. Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal presented the awards during a visit to Camp Ripley, the Minnesota National Guard training camp.
The Soldier's Medal recognizes heroic acts in a noncombat situation. The incident happened during the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division's yearlong deployment to Kuwait and Iraq in 2011.
"These are innocent civilians. Cars started lining up, and you start worrying that something can happen," said Edwards, who lives in Albert Lea, Minn.
Schmidt, of Redwood Falls, Minn., said hundreds of cars were backed up, but they continued their rescue efforts. "It was just one of those things -- the adrenaline is going," he said. "We knew we had guys and they were watching our backs."
Said Purkat, of Sunburg, Minn.: "It shows the people who were actually doing the fighting ... that we're there to help and render aid. If they didn't like us, at least this one time we helped them out."
Westphal, the second-highest-ranking member of the Army, said the incident exemplifies the selfless nature of American forces.
"To them, acting quickly like that -- sort of a natural reaction that came only from people whose values and norms and training have been such that they were willing to do that -- that says a lot about our country, in addition to what it says about those three individual soldiers," Westphal said.
Mark Brunswick 612-673-4434