Former Sgt. Robert Debolt was a private on his first deployment to Afghanistan in September 2008 when an IED engulfed his vehicle in flames and he risked his life to rescue the other soldiers trapped inside.
On Thursday, Debolt got a call from the sergeant major of the Army, letting him know that his award review request had been granted, and he would be receiving the Distinguished Service Cross some time next year, Debolt told Army Times in a phone interview.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said a few hours after the call from Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. “Especially having the sergeant major of the Army call me.”
But Debolt did have an inkling that an upgrade might be in the works. On Wednesday, he said, he got a call from the Pentagon asking him if he’d be available to take a call from a senior official.
This is also the script used in Medal of Honor notifications, in which the president calls to deliver the news directly. Debolt got his hopes up a little, he joked.
“It’s great, you know ― I’m very excited,” he said.
Valor awards are a legacy in Debolt’s family. His great uncle, then-Cpl. Ron Rosser, earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War.
Debolt’s Silver Star is one of a handful that have been upgraded during a congressionally mandated Defense Department review, which began back in 2016. When he heard about the opportunity, he said, he figured he’d put a packet together and see what happened.
“I sent my paperwork in to [Human Resources Command], out of the blue, just to do it,” he said. “Throw one at the door and see what sticks.”
According to his Silver Star citation, Debolt pushed through extensive burns to rescue two more guys from C Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.
“Private Debolt fought through his own blinding pain, refusing to leave his teammates until he himself was nearly incapacitated from his own wounds and shock,” the citation reads. “His actions at the start of a concerted enemy ambush helped save the life of one of his fellow soldiers while helping to prevent serious injury to another.”
He spent six months in the intensive care burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, where skin grafts repaired the third-degree burns from his face down to his back.
“Looking at me now, you could never even tell,” he said. “The surgeons did a really good job.”
He returned to his unit and deployed again to Afghanistan in 2011, then left the Army later that year. His recruiter, also a good friend, suggested that he try out barber school, and today he owns two shops in Zainesville, Ohio.
In 2016, he reached out to one of his former NCOs about his upgrade request, and together they put together a case.
“He had all the sworn statements. He’s the one who wrote my narrative for my Silver Star,” Debolt said. “I think that’s what helped push it along.”
His was one of more than 1,300 citations to be reviewed, and one of fewer than 100 that will result in an upgrade.
He expects to get more details about a ceremony in January, he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT