FORT IRWIN, Calif. (Army News Service, Feb. 18, 2009) - In front of a standing-room-only crowd of 600 at the National Training Center Friday, Spc. Erik Oropeza became the 21st Soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross since the war in Afghanistan and Iraq began.

Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Peterson, deputy commanding general and chief of staff of Forces Command, pinned the medal on Spc. Erik Oropeza of A Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment for heroic actions that saved the lives of three fellow Soldiers in Iraq.

The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest military decoration for valor, second only to the Medal of Honor. It is awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.

Oropeza received the medal for his heroic actions while assigned to B Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division during combat near Taji, Iraq on May 22, 2007.

Peterson said that it was a great honor for him to award the DSC to Oropeza, "a true American hero."

"Spc. Oropeza is the epitome of the Warrior ethos," Peterson said.

Oropeza said "I was just doing my job that day. My fellow Soldiers would have done the same thing in my shoes."

Spc Oropeza was driving his Stryker down a dirt road just off Main Supply Route Tampa, just north of Taji, when a massive improvised explosive device went off consisting of 13 155mm artilleryshells. The IED killed Pvt. Robert Worthington and Staff Sgt. Kristopher Higdon instantly.

The other three Soldiers in the Stryker, Staff Sgt. Thomas Lee, Pvt. Wilson and Pvt. Rogers were injured. Oropeza realized he was the only one of his crew capable of fighting off the encroaching enemy. His own rifle destroyed, he grabbed an M-4 carbine with an M-203 grenade launcher and returned fire on the five insurgent enemy firing on his Stryker. His actions that day prevented his vehicle and crew from being overrun.

Oropeza, a combat lifesaver course graduate, applied a tourniquet to Staff Sgt. Lee's leg which was missing below the knee. Knowing that his fellow Soldiers needed medical aid immediately and recognizing that the Stryker 100 yards behind them had a medic, Spc. Oropeza again risked his own life under enemy fire and ran to the Stryker to get the medic and have them call in a medevac report. All these actions directly resulted in saving the lives of his fellow Soldiers and preventing the enemy insurgents from capturing his Stryker.

Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commanding general of the 1st Armored Division and Command Sgt. Maj. Roger P. Blackwood, both flew from Germany to be present for the award ceremony. Oropeza's unit, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, the Manchus, was part of the 1st Armored Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many of Spc. Oropeza's Manchu chain of command including Staff Sgt. Lee flew down from Fort Lewis, Wash.

Oropeza's mother Celina Luz Rodriguez and his stepfather, Marcos Andrade, were visibly proud as they watched Lt. Gen. Peterson pin the medal on their son. Oropeza's fiancee, Erika Aguire, was also present. "I could not be prouder of Erik, she said.

Oropeza is now a member of the 11th Armored Cavalry, the National Training Center's renowned opposing force, tasked with training soldiers from all over the United States as they prepare to deploy in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

(John M. Wagstaffe serves as director of Public Affairs at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif.)

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16