Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. awarded five Flying Cross medals and seven Purple Hearts to 3rd ID soldiers Monday afternoon during a visit to Fort Stewart.
Casey, who was in the area with his wife, Sheila, and Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, spoke briefly at the ceremony after pinning the honorees.
"A mutual bond of trust has bonded us together," he said. That bond, according to the general, is what has allowed the Army to persevere during difficult recent years.
The award recipients were honored by Casey’s presence at the event.
"It’s a very proud moment. Hopefully, I’m worthy of his time and effort," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric D. Sikes, who received a Flying Cross along with 1st Lt. Douglas L. Hill II, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Craig R. Root, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Alexander D. Swyryn and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Aleksander M. Jadkowski.
The Purple Heart recipients were Lt. Col. Jeffrey C. Denius, Sgt. Rashaun L. Ellis, Sgt. Cody J. Taylor, Spc. Michael E. Lucas, Spc. Michael S. Milutin, Spc. Bryce E. Rennell and Spc. Brandon M. Yoeckel.
The crowd welcomed the Army chief, who was accompanied by 3rd ID commander Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo and Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Ashmen, before joining in singing "Dogface Soldier." The award recipients, many of whom were flanked by spouses, children and other relatives, assembled before a line of fluttering flags in Marne Garden to accept their medals.
"It felt amazing," Hill said. He also was pleased to meet Casey. "He’s a great leader and I was honored to be able to meet him and have him present the awards with our family members next to us."
Hill, who is from LaPorte, Ind., and has been in the military for nine years, was accompanied by his girlfriend, Jen Teal. The first lieutenant said he’s been stationed at Fort Stewart since April 2006.
Hill described the August 2010 mission in Afghanistan that ultimately led to the act of bravery for which he was rewarded.
"It started as a routine mission," he said. Hill, piloting a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, and his crew went to retrieve an injured U.S. soldier. "We got there and discovered three patients. One had fallen down the mountainside and broken his leg. Two others went to get him but couldn’t get back up because of heat exhaustion. We had to lower a medic on a hoist because we couldn’t land."
While conducting the rescue, the crew came under enemy fire. Even though his aircraft took 14 rounds, Hill successfully completed the mission and saved the three wounded soldiers. He said he wasn’t really focused on the enemy fire; he was thinking about saving the lives of his comrades.
"I was not thinking about it for the simple fact that we were so close to the side of the mountain," Hill said. "And with the wind, I was worried about being pushed into the mountain and hurting the medic or the patients. Rounds hitting the aircraft were a secondary concern."