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They’ve done extraordinary things in service to their country. But on Wednesday, a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman were recognized not just for their military exploits, but as “everyday heroes” who routinely go the extra mile for their fellow service members and their communities.
In a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by members of Congress, top brass, friends and family, the five were honored as the Military Times 2014 Service Members of the Year: Army Sgt. Thomas Block, Marine Master Sgt. Orlando D. Reyes, Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Collection) Jeremy T. Crandall, Coast Guard Operations Specialist 2nd Class Lindsey Neumann and Air Force Master Sgt. David Keirns.
They were nominated by their peers, who recounted how each goes above and beyond the call of duty in both the military and their communities.
Perseverance and resilience
Block, the Army honoree, with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia, was patrolling with fellow Rangers in southern Afghanistan in October when he was seriously injured after a woman detonated a bomb strapped to her body.
Four soldiers died and nearly two dozen others were wounded. Block was blown 35 feet away. But in less than 10 months, the 27-year-old Block has undergone six surgeries, learned to walk again and is adjusting to life with only one eye.
Block has spoken at leadership courses, mentored fellow wounded warriors, and even counseled the Oakland Raiders football team about resilience, perseverance and recovery. His goal is to inspire and motivate others in any way possible — while remaining a Ranger.
At the ceremony, Block said he’s intrigued by how far he has been able to reach in trying to inspire others.
“The level of impact I have on some people is humbling,” he said. “I know I could affect the little circle in my life, but not to the extent that I have.”
The trip to Washington, D.C., also provided Block with a pleasant surprise: While visiting with lawmakers before the ceremony, Block ran into a friend from college who happened to be working for one of the congressmen.
“I told him we came a long way from the ninth floor at Minnesota State,” Block said with a laugh.
Lighting the darkness
Reyes, the Marine Corps honoree, has a long list of achievements, but one of his most significant is his dedication to addressing the issue of suicide in the Marine Corps.
Aside from his regular duties as operations chief for Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Installations-East at Campe Lejeune, North Carolina, Reyes heads the command’s Never Leave a Marine Behind suicide prevention program.
For Reyes, it’s a personal mission; after three combat deployments to Iraq, he returned home to face his own difficulties that led him to attempt suicide. After pulling back from that brink, he has become the Corps’ top suicide prevention trainer on the East Coast, certifying at least 60 master trainers and 75 trainers since 2011. He also plans to graduate cum laude with a degree in organizational management.
Reyes spent his day leading up to the Military Times ceremony by meeting with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and taking pictures outside of the White House. He said he was especially pleased to be able to share the experience with his family.
“I’m just really happy that all of my family is here to witness this,” Reyes said.
He said the trip provided him an opportunity for a number of memorable “firsts,” including the chance to watch the famed Sunset Parade at the Marine Corps War Memorial.
'A different perspective'
Crandall, the Navy honoree, assigned to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln homeported in Newport News, Virginia, is described by his superiors and subordinates as a humble leader driven by a desire to see sailors succeed.
Crandall is driven in part by the example set by a senior enlisted crew member when Crandall had been in uniform for less than two years. He was one of 24 sailors detained by China in the “Hainan Island incident” of April 2001 when his Navy intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter, forcing an emergency landing. In the 11 days that followed, Crandall witnessed the “strong and selfless leadership” of that crew member who helped get the team through its harrowing ordeal.
Over his past 15 years of service, Crandall has encouraged at-risk sailors facing their own dire circumstances. Last year he created BALLAST, a program centered on classroom instruction on everything from financial management and drug and alcohol awareness to naval history and professional appearance.
The program, which also has a community service component, was originally designed for “at-risk” sailors, but it has become popular among enlisted leaders and now has a waiting list of volunteers.
Crandall said his trip to the nation’s capital had been wonderful. “It’s not my first time here, but it’s a different perspective being part of an event like this,” he said.
One of his favorite moments was getting to meet his own congressman, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. But even more gratifying, Crandall said, was getting to experience the Sailor of the Year honor with his shipmates, who he invited to the ceremony.
“They helped me get here,” he said.
An 'incredible' experience
As a situation controller, Coast Guard honoree Neumann keeps tabs on assets in Sector North Carolina’s 3,000 square miles of responsibility, assessing incidents and providing guidance on weather conditions to boats and aircraft. In 2013, she had the watch for more than 70 search-and-rescue or law enforcement missions, resulting in 120 lives saved or assisted.
Neumann is also Sector North Carolina’s health promotion and community services coodinator, tracking her unit’s health and wellness and creating programs and resources to address her shipmates’ concerns.
When Neumann isn’t standing 24-hour watches, she dedicates her time to volunteering in the Wilmington, North Carolina, community. She has teamed up with the chamber of commerce to complete two dozen projects with local organizations, including Adopt-A-Highway cleanups and building with Habitat for Humanity. She’s also working toward a master’s degree in management.
Neumann said this trip to D.C. has been one of the best experiences of her life. “Meeting these other winners has been incredible, and I’ve made friends I’m going to keep for a lifetime,” she said.
She also said she was looking forward to just soaking up the event — “and not tripping” during the ceremony, she quipped.
'Appreciation and respect'
Keirns, the Air Force honoree, who traveled to Washington, D.C., from Naval Station Rota, Spain, for the ceremony, is known to fellow airmen for routinely going far above and beyond the minimum required.
While in Afghanistan on a voluntary yearlong deployment, Keirns, with 725th Air Mobility Squadron, took on an array of missions and duties, including leading convoys outside the wire. A jet mechanic by trade, he served as an air adviser and developed a technical school where he trained 366 students in the Afghan air force. He also saved $8 million by using scrap parts to construct Mi-17 helicopter simulators.
Aside from being the section chief for his squadron in Rota, Keirns is one of the founding members of “Rota 25,” a program aimed at providing mentorship to new airmen, sailors and Marines. His superiors say he is totally dedicated to developing the next generation of Air Force leaders.
Keirns said the highlight of his day leading up to the ceremony was being able to talk with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at the Pentagon.
Even though Welsh was about to go to a briefing, Keirns said the general was “very gracious” and went out of his way to make time for him.
“It makes it easy to make the sacrifice when you have a leader like that,” Keirns said, adding that it was great to be in Washington, “where you see so much appreciation and respect for the military.”