It’s the oldest active military medal in the United States. It is believed its color was chosen because it represents courage and bravery, but it’s the medal nobody ever asks for.
It weighs just over an ounce, but holds the weight and sorrow of countless stories told and untold.
The stories are different, but they do have one thing in common: the recipient was wounded or killed in order to be awarded the Purple Heart.
When 1st Sgt. James Bodecker and his unit arrived in Iraq, the sights and sounds were not unfamiliar to him. “Believe it or not, the smell of burning trash off in the distance, the haze that always seems to be in the air, and the call to prayer were almost welcoming,” he recalled. This was not his first deployment, and he said the mood of the Soldiers was positive, as they looked forward to putting their training to use in a combat environment.
Bodecker’s unit, 1/506 Infantry, 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was sent to Combat Outpost Corregidor, located on the east side of Ramadi. Since the fall of Fallujah in 2004, Ramadi was the center of the insurgency in Iraq, and the most dangerous city in the country for U.S. forces.
Though Bodecker said the hardest part of any of his deployments was leaving his family, he had his private thoughts. “My biggest fear on every deployment was burning to death in a vehicle hit with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or sustaining a wound that would paralyze me, but you couldn’t allow that to hinder the mission.”
On February 17, 2006, while conducting a clearance mission in the Sophia district, Bodecker was setting the perimeter to maintain 360-degree security, and repositioning one of the tactical command post (TAC) gun trucks. Moments later, he was on the ground, in pain. He initially thought he’d stepped on an IED, but he’d been shot by a sniper. “I then realized that if I didn’t get out of the open I was going to get shot again, but I couldn’t make my legs move.” Then, the sniper fired again, and another soldier, Sgt. Ferdinand Cuevas, went down.
Bodecker was pulled out of the open area by Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Catterton. “I was later told that Alpha Company was able to locate the sniper position, box him and several others in, and took them out,” said Bodecker.
The bullet had struck his upper left thigh, severing three-quarters of his sciatic nerve and striking his femur, sending metal fragments into his abdomen. He was medically evacuated to the U.S. and spent two months in a Fort Campbell hospital, undergoing several surgeries. On March 20, 2006, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
The pain of the surgeries didn’t compare to the pain of what he witnessed while he was back in the states. “Seeing family members comfort a family that’s lost their Soldier and not know if or when it will happen to them is harder than being deployed,” said Bodecker.
Eventually, he returned to Iraq to complete the deployment with his unit. The military was seeing a growing number of Soldiers who returned to the battlefield after being injured. Part of it had to do with advances in military medicine and treatment, part of it was a commitment to duty, and part of it was also a personal obligation to those who didn’t make it.
Bodecker’s family understood his determination to see the mission through with his team, a historical “grit” of sorts in war-proven Army units throughout history. “You know the team can do without you, but it’s hard to do without the team,” said Bodecker.
Fast-forward nearly 15 years, and Bodecker, now a retired sergeant major and Department of the Army civilian at U.S. Army Central’s G36 Force Protection office, finds himself once again working for the Soldier who was his battalion commander during that fateful deployment to Iraq. Then-Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Clark, who was just a hundred meters away during the clearance mission, is now Lieutenant General Ronald Clark, former commanding general of USARCENT. “It was a pleasure to serve under Lieutenant General Clark for a second time,” said Bodecker.
In the end, for Bodecker, the Purple Heart is not about him or what he went through—it’s a keeper of memories and the “what-ifs?” we often ask ourselves. For such a small piece of metal, it weighs heavy on him. “It brings back a flood of emotion, remembering the Soldiers—my friends—that didn’t make it back. Things that maybe we could have done differently.”