By Chuck Cannon, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerDecember 20, 2010
FORT POLK, La. (Dec. 20, 2010) -- The early morning hours of April 25 were like most Louisiana spring mornings. There was a bit of a chill in the air but it wasn't frosty, and most area residents were either asleep, headed home from a date or, if a member of Fort Polk's 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, the Geronimos, headed to the field for another day of playing opposing forces to Soldiers preparing to deploy.
Michael Skinner, a 21-year-old from Hineston, had just dropped his girlfriend off at her house and was headed home down South Boundary Road in the Hineston area at about 3 a.m.
"It was my first time in the area and I wasn't familiar with the road," Skinner said. "I guess I fell asleep at the wheel. The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital."
When Skinner dozed off, his truck left the roadway, crashed and caught fire, leaving the Alexandria native knocked out in the burning cab. His list of injuries reads like a M.A.S.H. unit's casualty lineup: Broken ribs, broken femur, third degree burns, shards of glass in his eyes, broken jaw, broken wrist, internal injuries and other things Skinner said he doesn't recall.
"They didn't know whether I would ever walk again or see out of my left eye," Skinner said. "I was in pretty bad shape."
It could have been worse but for the heroic deed of three Geronimo Soldiers.
Shortly after Skinner's accident, Sgt. Stuart Fredieu, Sgt. Coty Clare and Spc. Ryan Guillot, all with Alpha Company, 1st Bn, 509th Inf Reg, were headed down South Boundary Road for another day of playing OPFOR. Their actions that morning led to the three Geronimos receiving the Soldier's Medal during a ceremony here Dec. 15.
"We were on our way to STX (situational training exercise) lanes for training," Guillot said. "We saw the truck and thought at first that they were doing a controlled burn."
Guillot said the trio, traveling in two trucks, decided to stop and make sure there were no casualties.
"When we got to the vehicle, we saw there was a guy trapped inside," said Guillot, who hails from Donaldsonville.
Fredieu, a Shreveport native, said it was one of the worst wrecks he'd seen.
"I didn't think anyone could be alive," he said.
Brig. Gen. James Yarbrough, commander, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, described the wrecked vehicle's condition as it was related to him.
"The young man was pinned in the cab, undercarriage was ripped off, front end crushed and in flames," Yarbrough said.
Clare, the ranking Soldier among the three, said he told his fellow Soldiers that they needed to move Skinner away from the burning vehicle.
"I had to dig his legs from under the truck," said Clare, who calls Oklahoma City, Okla., home.
Yarbrough described the three Soldiers' actions.
"They manually pried the steel frame of the door off of the vehicle and freed Michael Skinner, after lots of difficulty, even when flames continued to build," he said. "They got him out, unconscious, and evacuated him to a hospital. His (Skinner's) mother agrees - it sure beats the alternative."
Fredieu said he didn't think about what he was doing.
"We just did what we needed to do," he said. "I wasn't afraid. The front of the truck was on fire, but we'd all been deployed and seen stuff like that before."
"We're trained not to think, just react," he said. "I never gave it a second thought. I don't think I did anything heroic; I was just doing what any Soldier would do. A lot of guys in the military do this every day and don't get recognized for it."
Yarbrough likened the Soldier's Medal, the highest peacetime award given for valor, to the Silver Star. "The key point is personal risk of life," Yarbrough said. "In 32 years in the Army I've seen three Soldier's Medals awarded. The bar is set high. In the last 12 months, the Army has awarded 45 Silver Stars and 43 Soldier's Medals, so it's actually more difficult to receive a Soldier's Medal."
Yarbrough said the best part of the story is the Soldiers never gave it a second thought.
"It is a great reflection on the values of today's Soldiers," Yarbrough said. "They won't quit, never give up and never leave a fallen comrade behind."
Fredieu's mother, Tina Myatt, said her Family is proud of him.
"I'm in awe that God put Stuart and his friends there that night and that he reacted in the way he did," she said. "I've always felt that Stuart had the favor of God in his life."
Jared Myatt, Fredieu's younger brother by 10 years, said he wasn't surprised by his big brother's actions.
"That's the kind of person he is," Myatt said. "That's how he always was growing up."
Vivian LaCaze, Fredieu's grandmother, quoted the Bible, John 15:13 when asked her opinion of her grandson's actions.
"'Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,'" she said. "If you knew Stuart, you'd know that his actions that morning was so like him."
Fredieu said he believes there was divine intervention involved.
"I thank God for putting us in the right place at the right time," he said.
JRTC and Fort Polk Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Hof said the actions of Clare, Fredieu and Guillot were a reflection of the Soldiers stationed at Fort Polk.
"With the commanding general presenting the awards, I think this represents the goodness and contributions the Soldiers at the Home of Heroes have made over the past eight to 10 years," Hof said.
Yarbrough closed the ceremony by complimenting the three awardees.
"That night, these three Soldiers were magnificent," he said. "Fort Polk and the entire Army are proud of you."
Skinner's mother, Angela Pitre, agreed.
"These three men went above and beyond what most people would have done and saved my son's life," she said. "I pray for them and their Families and thank God for them every night. God put those Soldiers there."