BUNKER, Mo. - It came as a complete surprise to 1st Sgt. Patrick Stephens when he was honored in February at the Missouri Army National Guard 35th Engineer Brigade Ball.
Brig. Gen. David F. Irwin, commander of the 35th Brigade, called Stephens' name during the 21st annual event to honor him for his substantial achievement and contributions as an Army engineer.
"It caught me plum off guard," Stephens said. "Think that's the first time in all these years I've been surprised by the Army."
Stephens, who is retiring next month after 26 years of service, was bestowed the de Fleury Medal, which was named for Francois Louis Tesseidre de Fleury, a French born engineer who volunteered to fight in the War of Independence in 1779 and led a battle that regained control of a pivotal island captured by the British.
The de Fleury medal was the first Congressional Medal struck by the Continental Congress, bearing special meaning to engineer Soldiers.
Stephens called it a prestigious award and one that he was truly honored to receive.
"As I understand, the award is given to someone the command feels has contributed to the training and betterment of the Engineer Corps; to someone who has spent their lifetime with their heart in it," Stephens said.
Stephens, who admitted that he hardly felt worthy of the honor, said he has certainly served his country with his whole heart.
Stephens has served in all branches of the U.S. Army, including two enlistments in the regular Army, having been stationed overseas in both Korea and Germany, served in the Army Reserves and then the Missouri Army National Guard. He's been deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2007.
"The Army has been such a big part of my life," Stephens said. "I've lived it every day. Not a day's gone by that I haven't talked to Soldiers. Being an NCO has meant everything to me - being able to train and mentor Soldiers who serve under me."
Stephens said, upon his retirement next month, he expects it will take some time for him to adjust to civilian life.
"Duty, honor, country. These are what I live for," Stephens said, adding God and Family to those things that have mattered most to him. "These are the things in life that are most important. Collectively, we have to do our darnedest to further these virtues, or we're going the wrong way as a country."
Stephens is saddened to be leaving the military now, after 26 years of service, saying, "It's a great time to be in the military. It's the greatest organization in the world."
He admits, however, things neglected in his lifetime of service - namely family - are at the top of his priority list now.
"Seems like every important milestone that took place in my personal life, I missed being by at drill or deployed," Stephens said. "There are members of my wife's family who I didn't meet until years after we were married because I was always gone when get-togethers happened."
Stephens and his wife, Marca, will spend a lot more time together and with their children after he retires, and he's certainly looking forward to that, but he admits with a heavy heart, he will miss his military family.
"The friendships and camaraderie I've enjoyed in the military are immeasurable," Stephens said. "I'm going to miss the people and the atmosphere. My military career is ending, but my friends - the family I've gained - I will carry with me forever."