Staff Sgt. Nicholas Purkat (from left), Spc. Christopher Edwards and Sgt. Shawn Schmidt, who received the Soldier's Medal for actions in Iraq. (Staff Sgt. Bernardo Fuller / Army)
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Three Minnesota National Guardsmen who pulled Iraqi civilians from the burning wreckage of a two-van collision and helped them get care have received the Army's highest award for noncombat valor.
The trio — Staff Sgt. Nicholas Purkat, 27; Sgt. Shawn Schmidt, 29; and Spc. Christopher Edwards, 20 — received the Soldier's Medal on Sept. 22 for their heroic actions in 2011 in southern Iraq.
"To me, I was just doing my job, what anyone would do during the whole Iraq and Afghanistan [wars]," Schmidt said. "There have been a lot of great things that a lot of soldiers, airmen and Marines have done. That was just the situation we were in."
On Nov. 11, the three guardsmen from the "Minnesota Red Bulls," the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, were providing convoy security with their unit during the withdrawal of forces from Iraq.
Their convoy that day was stopped on a highway about 20 miles west of Basra when a smoke plume rose above it, said Schmidt, who was behind the lead truck. He and the others rushed to the scene to find the two vehicles in the collision. The vans were not yet in flames.
In one of the vans, the driver appeared dead, and his passenger was drifting in and out of consciousness and was trapped.
Schmidt soon realized the vehicle was on fire, with more people inside — three toward the front and six in the rear.
"That's when we started prying the doors, ripping out the glass and pulling them out," he said.
The trio of soldiers received minor scrapes and cuts, and Schmidt was shocked by the battery several times while using a fire extinguisher on one of the vans.
The trapped driver and passenger were eventually overtaken by flames, Schmidt said. As a trained emergency medical technician and volunteer for his local fire department, he was humbled not to have the hydraulic tools that would have allowed the troops to save more people.
"I've had car accidents [in the U.S.] where we have the tools, and no matter what, we get them out," he said. "I did as much as I could."
The people saved that day were young children, their parents and possibly their grandparents. They had broken bones, bruises and possibly internal injuries, said Purkat, who helped bring them to a unit medic he brought to the wreck.
The medic, Spc. Jennifer Pekula, received the Meritorious Service Medal, Purkat said.
Purkat said that although there was a language barrier, it was apparent that the Iraqis were asking for help.
"A lot of it was, can you help this person while making the call who needs the help right now," Purkat said. "I don't think they understood that, but seeing how fast we were working, they kind of understood that."
As the guardsmen left, some of the Iraqis thanked them, saying "shukran," or speaking English if they could, Purkat said.
At home, the soldiers have been acknowledged by proud family members and co-workers.
Army Undersecretary Joseph Westphal recognized the soldiers on a recent visit to the Camp Ripley Training Center near Little Falls.
"To them, acting quickly like that was sort of a natural reaction that comes only from people whose values and norms and training have been such that they were willing to do that," Westphal, the Army's second-highest-ranking civilian, said in a statement. "That says a lot about our country, in addition to what it says about these three individual soldiers."
For Edwards, it was "just common sense" and teamwork.
"When you're under pressure in a high-stress situation, and you're just doing, you see other guys doing stuff, you do what needs to be done," he said.
Purkat, a mechanic for the Guard, credited their Army training for their poise under pressure. Everyone in their company had completed the Combat Lifesaver Course.
"We were able to give those people a better chance than if there were just locals responding," Purkat said. "There were a lot of other vehicles that were gawking just to see what was going on, whereas we have the know-how, we have the training to do what we can for these people."