SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Four former U.S. Army Soldiers recently received the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device, or BSM(V), for their valorous actions in Panama 34 years ago.
Previously awarded the Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM) following Operation Just Cause — a campaign to overthrow Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and restore the democratically elected government of Guillermo Endara in 1989 — the prior service military police officers received upgraded awards at the U.S. Army South holiday ball, Dec. 8, 2023.
“Tonight was just amazing,” exclaimed Kimberly Brodbeck, a former Army captain and one of the four BSM(V) recipients. “Originally, when Mike Russell and Robert Mackey reached out to me, I didn't want to pursue this at all. In my mind, it was done, and it was a long time ago. Then, [Army South] Command Sgt. Maj. [Ronald] Graves called me and told me about the upgrade, and I was in tears. It felt really good [to receive this award] tonight.”
Brodbeck, then 1st Lt. Kimberly Thompson and platoon leader with the 988th Military Police Company, was honored alongside her former company commander, Capt. Linda Bray and retired Lieutenant Colonels Mikel Russell and Robert Mackey, who led the 108th Military Police Company during the invasion.
Collectively, their actions ranged from attacking Panamanian Defense Forces’ (PDF) positions, defending crucial checkpoints, clearing fortified buildings, dodging sniper fire, being pinned down by enemy fire for days, and fighting enemy forces in close combat.
Russell’s display of heroism began when PDF combatants fired on his Soldiers' positions. He acted quickly and with disregard for personal safety to run across the street, alone and only armed with a pistol, to neutralize the threat. When he tried to return to the defended perimeter, an enemy in a multi-story building began firing on his position.
Since it was nighttime, Russell’s first sergeant yelled at him to shoot out the streetlight above him. He did so, eliminating the enemy’s ability to see him as he ran back across the street under enemy fire.
“I did it because I was mad that they were shooting at my Soldiers,” said Russell. “There was no time to be scared; it was just about protecting my guys.”
Russell said he wrote a letter to a U.S. senator to reconsider the ARCOM he and his fellow Soldiers received. Award recommendations are processed through the U.S. Army Human Resources Command, and the award upgrades were approved in November 2023.
The BSM, instituted on February 4, 1944, is presented to individuals who, while serving in any capacity within or alongside the United States Army after December 7, 1941, have demonstrated exceptional heroism or meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against an armed enemy or an opposing armed force.
The "V" device is affixed to decorations as a symbol of valor, representing acts of heroism beyond the ordinary during direct combat with an enemy of the United States. Such actions involve exposure to enemy hostilities and personal risk, showcasing extraordinary courage and dedication.
The BSM(V)s were not the only awards presented that night.
Thigpen and Graves adorned the fifth Army Superior Unit Award streamer onto the Army South colors. The organization was recognized for its exemplary performance in 2020, during which time Army South supported U.S. Southern Command and Joint Task Force-Bravo in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations throughout Central America following two category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota, which both made landfall within a two-week period.
After all awards were distributed, something was missing, according to several of the BSM recipients. While grateful to be recognized, Russell shared that there are other fellow service members who also deserve to be honored.
“There are three Soldiers out there that we need to find so we can get their awards upgraded because they deserve BSMs for their actions,” he said. “My hope is that the Army publicizes this, these three Soldiers read this, and we find them to upgrade their awards. For me, that would be the greatest reward.”