WASHINGTON -- While this year presented many challenges due to an ongoing pandemic, Soldiers continued to be resilient when faced with uncertainty. Soldiers helped on the frontlines in the COVID-19 response and also kept the peace during times of civil unrest.
An Army Ranger also received the military’s highest honor, while another Medal of Honor recipient left a legacy of selfless service behind following his battle with cancer.
Below are some of the most notable Soldier stories of the year:
Soldiers on COVID-19 frontlines
Thousands of Soldiers, like Maj. Erin Velazquez, were called on to support the nation’s ongoing fight against COVID-19. She led one of the Army Reserve’s Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces that rapidly deployed starting in March to help exhausted health care workers at civilian hospitals.
When her 85-member task force, made up of critical care personnel, arrived at the University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, she said her Soldiers were greeted with open arms as her unit made sure to have the greatest impact possible by helping patients and providing mental health support to hospital staff.
More than a dozen similar task forces deployed to hotspots around the country, in what became the largest domestic mobilization in Army Reserve history.
During the initial response, U.S. Army North, which served as U.S. Northern Command’s Joint Force Land Component Command, oversaw more than 9,000 military medical personnel, including those task forces.
Every state and U.S. territory also activated components of their National Guard to assist in response efforts. For instance, 2nd Lt. Justin Lee, a medical-surgical nurse with the Maryland Guard’s 104th Area Support Medical Company, mobilized and later became a team leader as his unit supported long-term care facilities across the state.
Other Guardsmen and Army Corps of Engineers personnel also helped build several alternate care sites in major cities for many patients transferred from overwhelmed hospitals.
Army Ranger receives Medal of Honor
President Donald Trump draped the nation’s highest military award around Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne’s neck during a ceremony on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- a day that compelled Payne to enlist.
Payne, who is assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, was part of a joint task force that assisted Iraqi security forces Oct. 22, 2015, in raiding an ISIS prison near Hawija in northern Iraq.
Payne and his teammates liberated 70 hostages -- many of whom were captured Iraqi security forces personnel -- after a request by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Soldiers had to quickly rescue the hostages amid heavy enemy gunfire and suicide-vest detonations during the contested nighttime operation, which left at least 20 insurgents dead.
Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler also died in the operation. Since that day, Payne said he has continually reflected on Wheeler’s selfless service as well as that of his teammates.
While he miraculously survived with only minor smoke inhalation, Payne said he felt compelled to honor Josh’s memory. So, when it was time to name their second son, Payne and his wife, Alison, chose Josh.
“For us, it’s how his legacy lives on,” Payne said. “He is an American hero.”
Soldiers maintain peace during civil unrest
As the COVID-19 response carried on, thousands of Guardsmen were mobilized once again to assist local law enforcement and fire departments amid civil unrest following the death of George Floyd.
At its busiest time, the Guard had over 120,000 Soldiers and Airmen on duty serving around the world in early June. At least 90,000 of them either worked in COVID-19 or civil disturbance operations.
Master Sgt. Acie Matthews Jr., an equal employment opportunity advisor with the Minnesota Guard, and others were activated in St. Paul near where Floyd was killed after being arrested by police about 10 miles away in Minneapolis.
The incident sparked protests across the country, some of them even resulting in riots where Matthews calls home. Matthews, who mediates as part of his Army job, made it an effort to peacefully engage with protesters in hopes of creating unity among all.
Georgia Guard Soldiers, like Staff Sgt. David Knicely, helped protect infrastructure and facilitate peaceful protests in downtown Atlanta after rioters looted and damaged several businesses.
Knicely said he talked with about 50 people along the fence, one-on-one. While he and other Soldiers initially faced hostile protesters, the crowd grew calmer after protesters realized they were there to protect them and keep order, he said.
Medal of Honor recipient's legacy of giving
After he received the Medal of Honor for helping save Special Forces Soldiers and Afghan commandos in 2008, former Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer II considered locking up the medal away in his closet, worried it would be too much to handle.
While the medal deserved the upmost respect, the former 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) medic later learned he could use it to draw attention to the troops fighting today.
Following the medal ceremony in 2018, he participated in events led by the United Services Organization, Green Beret Foundation, Medal of Honor Society, and Special Operations Warrior Fund, to name a few.
It was his values of service, honor, and duty that led him up the mountain in Afghanistan that day. And it was the same beliefs that he committed himself to until he died May 14, after a hard-fought battle against lung cancer, said Miranda Shurer, his wife.
Ron never wanted to be defined by his cancer and chose to live "between the scans" -- the 12-week periods between each cancer screening, she said. And it was between each treatment, test, and medical evaluation that Ron and his family chose to thrive, giving back to various military and veteran causes around the U.S.
Texas Guard Soldier determined to change world
After a traumatic childhood that resulted in her being placed into foster care, 2nd Lt. Christina Meredith didn’t let her early years define her.
She pursued her dreams and later won the Ms. California pageant, published a bestselling memoir and became a national speaker and an aspiring politician. She has even created a nonprofit organization to advocate for foster care reform.
Meredith initially joined the Army as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist in 2015. In June, she commissioned to be a signals intelligence officer with the Texas National Guard, accomplishing another dream of hers to be an Army officer.
Top Soldier, noncommissioned officer of the year
After being pushed to their physical and mental limits, a Special Forces Soldier and a combat medic were named winners of this year’s Best Warrior Competition during a virtual event in October hosted by the sergeant major of the Army.
Following a gauntlet of tests leading to the announcement, Sgt. 1st Class Alexander Berger, assigned to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Carson, Colorado, and Sgt. James Akinola, who represented U.S. Army Medical Command and is stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, secured the top honors.
The competition recognizes Soldiers who demonstrate commitment to the Army values, embody the warrior ethos and represent the force of the future. The Army’s top Soldiers and NCOs compete at locations around the world in regional events before finalists vie to be named the best of the best over a three-week span in September and October.
Normally, event organizers bring finalists together so they can be evaluated in-person on their technical skills, physical fitness, and ability to adapt and overcome challenging and battle-focused scenarios. Due to COVID-19 health restrictions, however, this year’s competition was held virtually for the first time.
Recruits save life in basic combat training
A pair of new recruits leapt into action when a fellow recruit attempted suicide during the first week of basic combat training in early September.
Pvts. Carlos Fontanez and Ari Till stepped in when they noticed the recruit was in a mental health crisis while inside the communal latrine. Fontanez saw the trainee use a physical training belt as a noose and quickly grabbed him.
“I lifted him up so he could breathe, and Till unclipped the PT belt, and we just got him down and stayed by him until he got help,” Fontanez said.
Drill sergeants and cadre then took over, and the trainee received professional medical care.
Both Fontanez and Till were later given “on-the-spot” promotions to E-2, because of the responsibility they showed that day.
Veteran recites oath of enlistment at age 79
David Jager is likely the oldest person to enlist in the Utah National Guard history, if not the entire Army.
After Jager visited the Utah Guard’s headquarters in Draper in February to fix a clerical error on his discharge paperwork, someone noticed that he never officially took the oath of enlistment when he joined in 1963.
With the Vietnam War in full swing at the time, Jager was hurriedly shipped off to boot camp at Fort Ord, California. He went on to serve with the 140th Field Artillery Regiment for six years before being honorably discharged at the rank of staff sergeant.
Almost 57 years later, a teary-eyed Jager raised his right hand and recited the carefully worded oath.
"It's an honor," Jager said afterward, wiping away his eyes. "I love the uniform. I love the flag."
Warrant officer cohort gets first female senior advisor
A panel of Army senior warrant officers chose the first female to serve as the voice for over 25,000 warrants in the total Army.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Yolondria Dixon-Carter was selected to be the senior warrant officer advisor to the Army’s top general in April. She is the third warrant officer to hold the position since it was established in 2014.
Dixon-Carter now chairs the Army Warrant Officer Council, which advises Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville and other Army senior leaders on current and future development of the warrant officer cohort.
Army astronaut returns from historic space voyage
Col. Andrew Morgan returned to Earth in April, following almost nine months aboard the International Space Station.
While 250 miles above in space, Morgan completed several milestones, including setting the record for the most consecutive hours in space by a U.S. Army astronaut.
The lengthy space mission saw Morgan and his crew make more than 4,300 orbits around Earth, totaling 115 million miles. Morgan successfully completed the first seven spacewalks of his career and helped orchestrate NASA’s first all-female spacewalk, taken by fellow astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. Morgan’s spacewalks totaled about 46 hours.
Morgan said the mission ranked as the busiest in NASA history for spacewalks and cargo and robotics operations.
The emergency care physician further made history by swearing in 800 new Army recruits from the ISS in February. Morgan’s mission, which began on July 20, 2019, coincided with the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.