Vicenza NCO receives Soldier's Medal for river rescue
Stars and Stripes February 4, 2011
VICENZA, Italy — Spc. Justin Paquet was six hours into a patrol up and down a mountain in Afghanistan, carrying almost half his weight in gear under a steady drizzle.
He already had been shot at multiple times. And his day was about to get worse.
It was Aug. 7, 2010, and a patrol led by Staff Sgt. Daniel Schaffer was returning to Combat Outpost Conlon. In order to get back, they had to cross a river that, under normal conditions, wasn’t much more than a stream. But several days of rain had added a lot of swift-flowing water.
Still, it made sense to try to ford the stream rather than to use any bridges in the area, Schaffer said.
Bridges are obvious places to stage an ambush, and Schaffer’s patrol — made up of a small group of soldiers from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment — had already fought off two attacks during the patrol.
Little did any of the soldiers know that it would take a heroic effort by Schaffer to make sure the day didn’t turn tragic. An effort that would eventually earn him the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for valor in a noncombat situation.
Paquet, 23, from Milford, Conn., waded into the stream in an attempt to get across. Twice he turned back, because the water was too deep and moving too swiftly.
The patrol tried another spot.
Paquet waded in again, the water level reaching his waist at some points.
“I lost my footing, maybe four feet from the other bank,” Paquet said in an interview Thursday. “There are some parts I don’t remember after that.”
“He went down for a long time and when he came back up, he was obviously not himself, probably in shock,” Schaffer said.
So while most of the patrol manned security — waiting for another attack they thought was likely — Schaffer handed off his rifle, dropped some gear and went after his struggling soldier.
“I’m a pretty strong swimmer,” Paquet said. “But with 60, 80 pounds of gear … not so much.”
Schaffer, 28, from Boulder, Colo., is less confident in his swimming ability.
“I can dog paddle and get where I need to be,” he said with a smile.
With a combination of swimming and sheer determination, he reached a half-conscious Paquet, who was being carried away by the water.
“At that point, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t do anything,” Paquet said. “I think I would have died if he wouldn’t have grabbed me when he did.”
It took Schaffer a while to steady himself and Paquet. Other soldiers were eventually able to help them out of the water and back onto the same bank they had started from. They rendered aid to Paquet and got him back on his feet.
This week, Schaffer was presented the Soldier’s Medal during a ceremony at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza for his actions that day.
Paquet was left with a few cuts and a debt to his squad leader that he won’t soon forget.
“I’m here today because of him,” he said.