By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
WASHINGTON, Sept. 29, 2006 – The United Service Organizations celebrated its 65th anniversary last night and honored troops from each branch of the military for heroism. "We are thankful that we are defended by men and women of character and courage, and we are grateful to all the USO volunteers to work to entertain them," President Bush said in a video message to the 65th annual USO gala here. "They lift their spirits and express the gratitude and support of the American people."
The five troops who received USO Servicemember of the Year awards at the gala represent the highest ideals of courage and patriotism, and have demonstrated extraordinary loyalty, bravery and heroism, Bush said.
Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, of the Kentucky National Guard. Hester served as a team leader with the 617th Military Police Company at Camp Liberty, Iraq. On March 20, 2005, Hester was in one of three escort vehicles providing security for a convoy when the convoy was ambushed by insurgents. Despite being outnumbered five to one and coming under heavy fire, Hester led her soldiers on a counterattack, maneuvering her team into a flanking position and clearing trenches occupied by the insurgents. Hester is the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for combat action.
Marine Cpl. Robert L. Snyder, of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Camp Pendleton, Calif. Snyder was a fire team leader in Operation Iraqi Freedom. During a sweep of a compound in western Anbar province, Snyder's platoon encountered heavy machine gun fire. Learning that his squad leader was wounded, Snyder took charge, pulled one Marine to safety and ordered the squad to remove the remaining injured Marines. Snyder then used his own suppressive fire to rescue a Marine trapped inside the compound. Snyder was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor Device for his actions.
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathaniel R. Leoncio, of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Camp Pendleton, Calif. As a hospital corpsman deployed to Iraq, Leoncio was in a patrol stuck by an improvised explosive device. The IED caused his Humvee to overturn, traumatically amputating his lower right leg and causing other serious fractures and internal injuries. Despite his injuries, Leoncio began giving instructions on how to care for himself and the other injured Marines and personally rendered life-saving medical care to other Marines, including his platoon commander. Leoncio was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device for his valor.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph J. Upton, of the 775th Civil Engineer Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Upton was a member of a team that identified and disabled IEDs in Iraq, helping to secure areas for coalition and Iraqi army forces. During an operation to secure a main supply route, an IED detonated, rupturing Upton's eardrums and giving him a concussion. Despite his injuries, Upton rushed to the aid of his teammate, who had suffered a traumatic limb amputation. Upton improvised a tourniquet and began treating the other injuries. On the deployment, Upton led more than 50 missions to identify and disable IEDs, and led the destruction of more than 4,000 pieces of ordnance.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Mitchell A. Latta. Latta was an aviation survival technician involved in day and night rescue operations during Hurricane Katrina. While in a helicopter battling 40-knot winds, Latta dropped to a rooftop where 10 survivors were gathered inches above rising flood waters. One was an amputee suffering from diabetic shock. Latta rescued a stroke victim trapped in her attic and submerged himself in toxic flood waters to save a woman whose legs were tangled in a garden hose. Over the five days of rescue operations, Latta saved the lives of 181 people.
Leoncio, the Navy corpsman who is now a single-leg amputee, said he is honored to receive this award, but he knows many other corpsmen and Marines who have done just as much as he did, or more. He said he doesn't remember many of the events of the day he was injured and has to rely on other people to tell him what happened, but he's glad he was able to do his job and save the lives of the Marines that he said are like a family to him.
"We'd do anything for each other; I'd do anything for any of my Marines, and they'd do the same for me," he said. "I love my Marines; they saved my life."
Leoncio lost friends in the war on terror, but he said he tries to maintain a good attitude and go on with life -- including running in the upcoming Army 10-miler -- to honor their lives and to show gratitude for the chances he's been given.
"You live life for those that didn't make it, and that's it," he said. "You can't be sad because, one, I'm not that bad off; there are a lot of other people worse off than me. And, I've had some friends who didn't make it home. Don't get me wrong, I have my sad days and there are certain times when certain things will remind me of my friends and I get sad and I get depressed, but then you snap out of it. You just have to."
Hester echoed Leoncio's sentiments of humility about receiving the USO award. Her fellow soldiers are her brothers and sisters, she said, and they serve honorably every day. "I served close to a year over there with them, and they deserve to be standing up here with me," she said. "They fought just as hard as I did so, in my eyes, they should be here too."
Hester said that her actions that day in Iraq were largely instinctive, drawing on her training as a soldier. "You really don't have time to think about what you should and shouldn't do," she said. "To make no decision is the wrong decision, and that's the only wrong decision you can make. I just reacted; it was pretty instinctive."
Snyder, the Marine, said that he was just doing his job while clearing the compound in Iraq. He never expected to be nominated for an award, he said, and he is just glad he was able to be there for his fellow Marines when they needed him.Snyder comes from a family of Marines and said that when he joined, he knew he had found his niche in life -- a niche he is eager to get back to.
"They're out there doing their job in the field right now, training hard. I've just got to get out of here quick enough to go back with them," he said.
At the gala, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the stories of the five servicemember honorees and other troops like them bring tears to his eyes and make his job a privilege. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Pace's assumption of the chairman position, and he said he is proud of the past year and ready for the future.
"I have no idea what this next year has in store, but I do know this: there are 2.4 million young men and women -- active, Guard and Reserve -- just like the five young men and women who are standing before you tonight, who have pledged their lives if necessary to defend this country," he said. "And therefore, it is not a burden for me to go do my job. It's an honor; I'm fired up, and I'm proud to serve alongside them."
Pace also thanked the volunteers and celebrities who work with the USO, bringing a piece of home to U.S. troops serving overseas. "You have no idea how you touch our hearts and how just hearing your voice or seeing your smile or knowing that you too are in 120 degree heat -- what a huge difference that makes to everybody serving overseas," he said.