Capt. Shannon Ison's son, Ben Ison, 11, takes a closer look Feb. 10 at the Silver Star his father received for actions in Afghanistan. (Tyler Bissmeyer / Special to The Courier-Journal)
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Until Sunday, when she watched her husband receive the Silver Star Medal at the Galt House Hotel, Deborah Ison never knew exactly what he had done during his 2008 service in Afghanistan to receive the military's third-highest decoration for valor.
When she finally found out, after reading the official account, she was both proud and angry.
Proud, because Capt. Shannon Ison of the Kentucky National Guard saved the lives of numerous men under his command during an attack by insurgents in Afghanistan, according to the award description.
Angry, at least initially, "because I could have lost him."
At the time, the Lexington firefighter and paramedic was deployed in the Nawa region with his platoon of combat engineers — the 206th Engineer Battalion. They were on patrol, searching out improvised explosive devices, when one explosive detonated, injuring four soldiers in a nearby vehicle.
With gunfire raging around him, then-Lt. Ison left the cover of his vehicle and ran to the site of the explosion to help the wounded, according to the official account.
After helping the wounded, Ison continued to lead and direct his troops, which is a large part of the reason he received the Silver Star, said Capt. Steve Martin, public affairs officer with the Kentucky National Guard.
"His response saved lives," Martin said.
In front of 1,200 soldiers Sunday, Maj. Gen. Ed Tonini, Kentucky's adjutant general, pinned the Silver Star to Ison's fatigues, only the fourth issued among the 15,000 Kentucky Guardsmen deployed since 2001.
Col. Mike Ferguson, Ison's commanding officer at the time of the attack, said Ison's actions under extreme pressure were heroic and beyond the call of duty.
Ison, though, disagrees.
"I didn't think I deserved (the Silver Star)," said Ison, who doesn't talk about his combat experiences with his wife or children. "I was just doing my job."
Attending to the wounded took about five minutes during the 50-minute ambush, and Ison said it wasn't even the worst attack his platoon had weathered, although he didn't elaborate.
"I believe anybody could have received it that was there," he said.
At home, Deborah Ison and their children — Ben, 11, and Allyson, 14 — were following the news and scouring maps of the area where he was operating. He didn't get to call or email much, and Deborah Ison would begin worrying if she hadn't heard anything for several days.
"I said, ‘Just (email) me your name, just to let me know you're OK,' " she said.
There was a point leading to the mission when Shannon Ison called his son to wish him a happy birthday. Looking back, Deborah Ison believes there was something more to that phone call.
"I know it was because he was scared he would not make it back," she said. "Before he left I told him, ‘Don't be a hero, because you're already a hero to me, Allyson and Ben,' " she said.
But Capt. Ison — who soon will return to Afghanistan for another yearlong tour — became a hero for many, even if he doesn't see himself that way, Ferguson said.
It's certainly the way Ben sees him. "To me he's the best father in the world," he said, "probably one of the best soldiers in the world."