Support our mission
Air Force Maj. Gen. Bill Essex, commander of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, left, presented AAFES employee Brian Sonntag the Defense of Freedom medal on Friday. The medal is the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Bill Essex, commander of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, left, presented AAFES employee Brian Sonntag the Defense of Freedom medal on Friday. The medal is the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

MAINZ-KASTEL, Germany — In the first-floor conference room at AAFES headquarters in Europe there are a series of posters emblazoned with the slogan “Dare to deploy.”

One of the posters happened to be hanging Friday directly above a table that cradled a Defense of Freedom medal. The medal is the civilian equivalent of the military’s Purple Heart.

On the eve of a three-day weekend, a crowd had gathered to recognize Brian C. Sonntag, the medal’s latest recipient and the second in as many months for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. Also on hand was Air Force Maj. Gen. Bill Essex, the AAFES commander.

The awarding of this medal “is totally suitable,” Essex said as he turned to face Sonntag, “and it’s the least we can do.”

Some of Sonntag’s colleagues joked later about him getting “a big head,” with all the attention. So, in jest, they held up placards proclaiming his “fan club.”

Sonntag, 33, seems rather humble, but on Friday he played along, though he also looked relieved to get the ceremony behind him. He is a store manager in Katterbach.

“It was a scary event,” Sonntag said of the roadside blast that led to the medal. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It was a vicious explosion.”

The former Army medic “dared to deploy” to Iraq in March 2004. He spent his first three months in Basra, and was actually departing the city for good when an improvised explosive device detonated alongside the military convoy he was riding in. The blast killed a 19-year-old British private riding in another vehicle.

Sonntag was peppered by shrapnel in the face and right leg. He still carries fragments in the right side of his body.

“We are fortunate that only nine [AAFES employees] have been wounded” in Iraq, Essex said.

However, he was quick to mention that AAFES suffered its first war fatality last month when Darren Braswell died along with 11 others in an Army helicopter crash in northwestern Iraq. Bad weather is suspected as the cause.

Braswell is the third AAFES employee to receive the Defense of Freedom medal, said Debbie Byerly, a spokeswoman for AAFES-Europe. The medal was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A fourth medal has been approved for an AAFES employee, and two more are pending.

Essex said AAFES has about 450 of its employees in the theater, including 270 in Iraq.

“We have no trouble getting volunteers to fill those demanding slots,” he said.


Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up