Sgt. Michael Buyas was in an armored vehicle in northern Iraq when he lost both legs in an explosion near Mosul that lifted his 19-ton Stryker vehicle 15 feet into the air and propelled him 60 feet away from the tank.
Sgt. Buyas' left leg was shredded, his spleen ruptured. The blast left him in a coma for 12 days. He later lost his right leg, too.
"When I woke up in the hospital on New Year's Eve, I made a resolution to regain walking," he said. "I'm walking now."
Sgt. Buyas was one of five soldiers yesterday to receive a Combat Action Badge, an award that recognizes those who have engaged in combat or performed duties under hostile fire or imminent danger while fighting in the war on terrorism. The award is retroactive to Sept. 18, 2001.
More than 100 soldiers, retired generals and Pentagon personnel yesterday milled around the Pentagon's third-floor "Warrior Ethos" display to watch Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, chief of staff of the Army, and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston pin on the medals.
Several field commanders requested the award, approved by Gen. Schoomaker on May 2, to recognize all soldiers in combat, regardless of military branch, occupational specialty or sex. It serves as an alternative to the Combat Medic Badge and the Combat Infantryman Badge, which is open only to those of certain occupational specialities and is closed to women, officials said.
The soldiers honored yesterday were a random sampling from the Army, National Guard and Army Reserve. "Tens of thousands" of soldiers will receive badges over the coming months, Army officials said.
"I was the first pinned, but I definitely wasn't the first person to earn it," said Sgt. Buyas, 30, of Orondo, Wash. "The [Combat Action Badge] ranks right up there with the Purple Heart, right after the birth of my children and marrying my wife."
Maj. Mike Jason stood in line to shake the soldiers' hands.
"It's a great recognition for the individual valor and courage of the young soldiers, especially in this new kind of war, which is the war on terrorism," he said. "It recognizes that everyone is part of the fight, and it calls upon the warrior ethos."
Sgt. Sean Steans, 24, a truck driver with the 377th Transportation Company in Humaniyah, Iraq, said, "It's an honor to be a part of United States history."
Scars dot his face and his nose is slightly misshapen, evidence of the shrapnel that ripped into his face, chest and foot during a February blast that rocked the truck he was riding in north of Baghdad. The blast instantly killed the driver, set the truck on fire and nearly took his life as he struggled with his jammed door before climbing over the driver's body to escape. He was in a coma for a month before waking up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District.
"It's all about my family," said the Alabama native of what keeps him going every day. "To protect and serve."
Command Sgt. Maj. Michele Jones, of the Army Reserve, said the award is "great."
"It reinforces a soldier is a soldier regardless of what service they bring," she said.
Sgt. April Pashley, 22, of Egg Harbor, N.J., agreed. "I think it's great to be in a military that can recognize everyone as equals," said the only woman to receive the award yesterday.
Each soldier yesterday shared another commonality, Sgt. Maj. Preston said. "They're all your average Americans who say they wanted to do something bigger than themselves," he said. "They not only represent the Army, they represent all of America."
Sgt. Tim Gustafson of Clarksville, Tenn., sat down with reporters in the Pentagon courtyard to talk about his experience in Iraq. The metal of the prosthetic that replaces the right leg he lost in Iraq was visible beneath his pant leg.
"I definitely want to say thank you to America," he said, adding that he ran five miles Sunday to celebrate the five-month anniversary of the blast that robbed him of his leg.
"Their arms have been outstretched since day No. 1. Even if they don't support the war, they support our soldiers [and] that helps keeps our soldiers going."