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Corpsman attached to Marine special ops first to earn Navy Cross

Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman and Chief Petty Officer Justin Wilson salute after Wilson was awarded the Navy Cross on Nov. 25, 2014, at Camp Pendleton. Wilson earned the medal for his actions in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 28, 2011.

JENNIFER HLAD/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 26, 2014

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — There have been times Chief Petty Officer Justin Wilson just wanted to forget Sept. 28, 2011.

He was in Helmand province. Afghan police had told coalition forces they believed improvised explosive devices were hidden at the local police checkpoint, and then-Petty Officer 1st Class Wilson and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Sprovtsoff went in to investigate.

Sprovtsoff, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, tried to get rid of the IEDs with some explosives of his own, but when that didn’t work, he went into the area again and stepped on a pressure-plate bomb.

Wilson, a corpsman, and two other Americans, Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Diaz and Army Spc. James Butz, ran to help. When the team was moving Sprovtsoff to safety, another IED exploded, throwing Wilson against a barrier and severely wounding the other three men.

Though Wilson had taken shrapnel in his face and chest, he focused on trying to help the other men, members of Marine Special Operations Team 8113. He dragged one out of the area and looked for the other two. Only after he had confirmed that all three were dead did he allow anyone to treat his wounds.

“Words can’t explain what those guys meant to me, and there’s times when I want to shut out the world, act like this whole day never happened,” he said Tuesday at a Camp Pendleton ceremony in which he received the Navy Cross. “But I’ve learned that if you do that, you don’t remember. And without remembrance, there is no honor.”

Wilson is the first sailor in the eight-year history of Marine Special Operations Command to receive a Navy Cross. Diaz and Sprovtsoff were awarded Bronze Stars with V for combat valor at the Tuesday ceremony; Butz had already been awarded the Bronze Star with V.

Wilson’s actions illustrate what the Marines call “corpsman up,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of MARSOC.

“A Marine in trouble always looks for that corpsman,” he said. “Chief Wilson today epitomizes that heroism and true selflessness that we all depend on as Marines, to save our lives.”

Tasha Sprovtsoff said that for more than a year after the explosions, she chose not to know the exact details of her husband’s death. But when she learned, she said, she surprised herself by smiling.

“I thought, it would take two bombs to get rid of Nick Sprovtsoff,” she said. “That is the kind of man that Nick was, one that would instill in his wife a faith in his abilities and in his bad-assery, and I feel like if he were here today, that’s what he would say. He would say, ‘Yep, I’m a bad ass.’”

Salvador Diaz said his son never cared much about medals and accolades. But medals and memories are now all his family has left, Diaz said.

“It’s not going to replace our son — nothing will — but it’s something we can hold on to,” Diaz said. “We are still processing a complicated array of emotions. Among them: grief, a sense of emptiness, but also a sense of pride.”

A few months ago, the Diaz family was able to adopt Dino, the Belgian Malinois that Staff Sgt. Diaz was working with at the time of his death. Diaz, a military working dog handler, had put Dino in a vehicle in the air conditioning because it was so hot, Salvador Diaz said, so the dog was not injured in the explosions.

Wilson downplayed his own actions, saying that Diaz and Dino had saved thousands of lives, and that Sprovtsoff’s actions likely saved 120 lives that day alone.

“Some people tell me I’m lucky to be alive, to walk out of that,” he said. “I’ll tell you, I’m lucky to have served with them. They made me a better person.”

This Thanksgiving, Wilson told the Marines and families gathered for the ceremony, “Laugh a lot, love hard, and don’t forget what these guys did.”

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Sprovtsoff
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MARINE CORPS