A Fort Rucker noncommissioned officer was awarded the nation’s oldest military decoration during an awards presentation and reenlistment ceremony at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum April 13, 2022.
Staff. Sgt. David Vazquez, the Tactical Airspace Integration System facility chief for 1st Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment, was awarded the Purple Heart medal by Maj. Gen. David J. Francis, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commander, for wounds received during the Al-Shabaab attack on Magagoni Airfield, Manda Bay, Kenya on Jan. 5, 2020.
Vazquez was awarded multiple decorations, and reenlisted during the ceremony.
Francis thanked attendees, including the family, and the members of 164th Theater Airfield Operations Group the 1-58th for supporting their own.
“It’s truly an honor to award Staff Sgt. David Vazquez the Purple Heart, the Combat Action Badge, and the Army Commendation Medal with Combat Device today,” Francis said. “His display of physical and moral courage, his embodiment of the warrior ethos - never to leave a fallen comrade, and his instinct in leadership under duress make it an absolute honor to recognize him today.”
Joining the ceremony virtually were the families of the late Spc. Henry “Mitch” Mayfield Jr., also of 1-58th Avn. Regt., and Dustin Harrison, a Department of Defense contractor, who were both killed during the same attack at Manda Bay.
“The Mayfields know that they hold a special place in our hearts here at Fort Rucker and in the 164th (Theater Airfield Operations Group), as we drive down Mayfield Avenue every day. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten,” Francis said.
On Jan. 5, 2020, Vazquez served as the landing zone safety officer for 1-58th Avn. Regt. at Magagoni Airfield. Just after 5 a.m., approximately 40 Al-Shabaab fighters launched an attack against U.S. forces at Manda Bay, Kenya, beginning with a ground assault against personnel and aircraft on the airfield, with near simultaneous indirect fire on Camp Simba.
During the opening minutes of the attack, Vazquez’s vehicle was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from approximately 50 feet away, killing Spc. Mitch Mayfield, and injuring Vazquez. The enemy attacked and destroyed multiple aircraft on the airfield, also killing two Department of Defense contractors, Dustin Harrison and Bruce Triplett.
For nearly 14 hours Vazquez actively evaded direct fire and detection, until a deliberate counterattack by U.S. and Kenyan armed forces repelled the enemy fighters.
Francis, flanked by Command Sgt. Maj. James D. Wilson, Aviation branch command sergeant major, and Chief Warrant Officer 5 Michael L. Lewis Jr., chief warrant officer of the Aviation branch, presented the awards.
The Purple Heart, which is awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who are wounded by an instrument of war at the hands of the enemy.
Originally instituted by Gen. George Washington as the Badge of Military Merit to recognize outstanding valor, the award was later revived by President Hoover by executive order with the added criterion of wounded in action at the hands of the enemy. Originally made of cloth, now the decoration is made of metal in the shape of a rich purple heart.
“Staff Sgt. Vazquez’s courage, commitment and service to this nation are unquestioned,” Francis said. “And today he steps forward again, in spite of his difficult combat experiences, and he’s going to reenlist today in the United States Army, making a commitment not only to serving this great nation but to care for our sons and daughters as a noncommissioned officer, the backbone of our Army, and the backbone of Army aviation.”
Francis administered the oath of enlistment as Vazquez committed to continue serving in the Army for four more years. Vazquez will serve at Fort Rucker, his duty station of choice, where he will continue to have an impact on the next generation.
Francis also presented Vazquez’s wife Karla Benitez a certificate of appreciation for her dedication and service to the nation.
Vazquez thanked leaders and family for their attendance and support, including his siblings who flew in for the ceremony, family members who joined the ceremony virtually from Puerto Rico, as well as the Mayfield family, and the spouse of Dustin Harrison. He especially thanked his wife Karla and their children.
“Without you I would not have been able to get up from that hell that I went through,” Vazquez said.
He also thanked his colleagues from the 1-58th Airfield Operations Battalion.
“I am in front of you receiving an award that is not only mine but it also is to each and every one of us who deployed on October 1, 2019, especially the Manda Bay crew,” he said.
“That morning on January 5, 2020 we lost one of the most beloved Soldiers in the unit, Spc. Henry J. Mayfield Jr. Each and every one of us lost a friend that day and received a scar … that will be with us for the rest of our lives.”
“No matter how many times we fall, we will get up stronger and continue fighting until we achieve the victory,” he said.
Vazquez said when he joined the Army he was in a difficult economic situation. His siblings were already serving in the military, and they explained to him the benefits that came with service. Joining the Army meant he and his wife and children would have to leave their home, their country and their families.
In 2016 he swore in to protect the United States and to give his family a better life. Six years later, he and his family have no regrets, he said.
“Thank God we are better than ever, and I will always be grateful for all these opportunities that the Army has given to me,” Vazquez said.
He continues to serve to give his family benefits not every job can offer, and because he loves to be a Soldier and being a mentor to the junior enlisted.
“I would like to pass all the acquired knowledge to the new Soldiers, let them know that if I, without knowing much English and with this accent, have been able to achieve many goals and get where I am, they can also achieve them too,” Vazquez said.
In the future he wants to prepare Soldiers to understand that being in air traffic control doesn’t mean they will not feel the heat of combat.
“I want to… prepare them for any situation that arises,” Vazquez said.
Going forward, his goal is to be a better husband, father and Soldier.
“I think that is the purpose for which God gave me a second chance that morning.”