Army Sgt. 1st Class Joe Stalinski and other soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were pinned down by gunfire from Taliban fighters on two sides when he noticed the children.
The Afghan kids – three of them – were heading deeper into the crossfire to reach their parents inside the village in southern Afghanistan. Stalinski, 35, signaled them to stay away, but they kept advancing.
“I said, ‘The hell with it,’?” Stalinski recalled. “I went and got them.”
The infantryman left his cover and sprinted 25 meters. He snatched up the toddler and baby and cradled them firmly to his chest. He grabbed the hand of the girl, guiding her in front of him to protect her. Then he led them back behind his position to safety.
Stalinski, a native of St. Clair Shores, Mich., who now lives in DuPont, was one of five Stryker brigade soldiers awarded the Bronze Star for valor, the nation’s fourth-highest award for combat heroism, during a ceremony at Lewis-McChord on Tuesday.
Another 40 or so soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division received Bronze Stars for meritorious service and Purple Hearts for injuries sustained in combat.
Stalinski said afterward that he didn’t race to the children’s aid on that day last spring to receive recognition, but he acknowledged, “It feels good to get the award.”
The ceremony came as the 3rd Brigade’s soldiers get ready for a leave that follows their return home. The unit’s formal welcome-home ceremony is Feb. 5.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of the 7th Infantry Division, pinned the medals on the soldiers. Afterward, he praised them for a tough, complex deployment that saw about half of the unit leave ahead of the other half. The division oversees the 3rd Brigade and four other combat brigades at Lewis-McChord.
The U.S. military is scheduled to end its combat role in Afghanistan in the coming year with plans to withdraw all troops in 2014. Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, Lewis-McChord’s commanding general, said recently the base will return its focus to the Pacific Rim now that the nation’s commitments in the Middle East are ending.
Lanza said the future for the Afghan people is uncertain and rests with them, but that the brigade’s soldiers have “given them that chance” to live in a free and safe society.
The brigade’s sister unit, 2nd Brigade, is due back early in 2013. The 4th Brigade, the last of the three Stryker brigades based at Lewis-McChord, is deployed for nine months and set to return home in August.
Sixteen soldiers from the 3rd Brigade died during the deployment. The brigade was unable to provide the number of soldiers wounded.
Sgt. Thomas Pike, 24, a native of Pasadena, Texas, who lives in Spanaway, received two Purple Hearts during the ceremony. He sustained concussions in separate enemy bomb blasts in September and October.
“I feel honored to get the award,” he said. “I still keep in mind the other guys in the unit that got injured as well, and what they did, too.”
Tuesday’s ceremony was planned to be held outside but was moved into a cramped gymnasium due to the snow. No one was complaining.
“Even with the crazy weather, it’s good to be home,” said Col. Charles Webster, the brigade’s commander.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 / firstname.lastname@example.org