By Lori Egan, The BayonetJune 8, 2011
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Fort Benning's Sgt. 1st Class Joe Kapacziewski was deployed to Afghanistan when he learned he was one of two recipients of this year's Freedom Award. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command and President Barack Obama's pick to be the next Army chief of staff, was the other.
Kapacziewski, a platoon sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, is the first enlisted Soldier to receive the award honoring the "sacrifices required to defend liberty, becoming selfless in the willing pursuit to deliver no greater sacrifice in the great cause of freedom," according to the award.
Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Hardy, Maneuver Center of Excellence command sergeant major, said Kapacziewski is the epitome of the Army Values and Ranger Creed.
Hardy has known the 29-year-old since 2007 when Hardy became the Regimental Special Troops Battalion command sergeant major and Kapacziewski was working in the arms room while undergoing physical and occupational therapy for the wounds he received in October 2005.
During a mission in Iraq, Kapacziewski, then a squad leader, "distinguished himself through heroic actions taken while being severely wounded," wrote Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Merritt, who nominated the platoon sergeant for the award.
While on a mission during his fifth deployment, his six-vehicle convoy came under fire during an enemy ambush. Insurgents engaged the Stryker from an overpass using small-arms fire and grenades. A grenade fell through the gunner's hatch and exploded, injuring three Rangers.
Ignoring his life-threatening injuries, Kapacziewski warned his unit of the attack, and directed his vehicle out of the kill zone, Merritt wrote. Only after he ensured the safety of his men did Kapacziewski administer self-aid and let Sgt. Matthew Sanders apply a pressure dressing to his right arm.
Kapacziewski's wife, Kimberly, said she was told it was a miracle he survived.
"Advances in battlefield medicine kept Joe alive," she said. "Ten years earlier, he would have died."
After transferring to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and enduring more than 40 surgeries, doctors told Kapacziewski the probability of walking again was slim.
But the doctors didn't consider Kapacziewski's motivation and commitment to continue to lead and be a part of the Army team, Hardy said.
After two more operations on his right foot, Kapacziewski chose to have it amputated because the regimental surgeon said it was his best option for regaining the physical prowess necessary to return to the regiment.
"I couldn't imagine doing anything else," said Kapacziewski, who enlisted in 2001. "The friends, the camaraderie is unlike anything else I've ever experienced."
Transferred to the Ranger Operations Company as cadre, even missing a leg, "he could smoke anyone I knew at running," wrote David Pickard on the Army Facebook page May 19.
The training to become a Ranger is hard, Hardy said, and Kapacziewski motivated the young Soldiers to keep trying.
Kapacziewski swims laps during his lunch hour and competes in triathlons, marathons and relay races. He has run in Operation One Voice's annual 600-mile relay since 2007, ran a 7:10 pace during the 2008 Army Ten-Miler and has run in the New York City Marathon for the last two years for the Lead the Way Fund.
Hardy credits Kapacziewski's intense desire to get back into the fight as a Ranger squad leader with helping him pass the Ranger standards and completing the train-up, which includes the Army physical fitness test, five-mile run, 12-mile road march, Airborne jumps and fast-rope certification.
Hardy remembered Kapacziewski discussing the possibility of injury while deployed.
"If someone breaks his leg while on a mission, he'll have to redeploy for medical treatment," Hardy recalled Kapacziewski saying. "I'll just have to go back to the (forward operating base) and get another leg."
After a medical board's decision to continue Kapacziewski on active duty, he returned to his unit as a squad leader.
"Everyone puts pants on one foot at a time," Kapacziewski said. "I just have a different foot.
"No matter what the position or grade, every (Ranger) needs to meet the Ranger standard."
"There's a photo of Kapacziewski in Afghanistan putting on his prosthetic leg " that's at 10,000 feet," Hardy said.
"When he's faced with adversity, he continues to fight," Hardy said. "If I could create every Soldier in his image, it would be a good outfit."
When Kapacziewski isn't deployed, he visits wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
"They have the most difficult challenge they'll ever have to face " I let them know they aren't alone. Whether it's limb salvage or amputation, we talk about the different options, about staying in the military or getting out. It's harder to find guys who have gone back to the 'line,' but I let them know it's possible," he said.
Sgt. 1st Class Joe Kapacziewski's military awards include the Bronze Star Medal with V device, the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart (3rd award), Army Commendation Medal with V device (2nd award), Army Commendation Medal (3rd award), the Ranger Tab, Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Infantryman Badge and the Senior Parachutist Badge with Jump Star.
ABOUT THE FREEDOM AWARD
Presented by No Greater Sacrifice in Washington, D.C., May 24, the award recognizes service members who have dedicated their lives to defending freedom wherever duty calls. Past recipients are Col. David Sutherland, 2008, Gen. David Petraeus, 2009, and Gen. James Conway, 2010. No Greater Sacrifice, a nonprofit organization created in February 2008, is dedicated to the 50,000 children of our nation's fallen and wounded service members. The Freedom Award is presented annually by the No Greater Sacrifice public charity and is designed to honor the recipient(s) that best represents five core principles:
FREEDOM. NGS honors a man or woman in the U.S. military who is not only committed to the freedom of all Americans but who works tirelessly to promote and support freedom around the globe, especially in areas of conflict.
SACRIFICE. The Freedom Award honors a service member who embraces the sacrifices required to pursue and attain freedom and becomes selfless in his or her willingness to commit all that they possess in the great cause of freedom.
COMMUNITY. The recipient works diligently to build bridges between the military and civilian communities so that we, as civilians, can be more effective in our effort to support Wounded Warriors, the re-entry of veterans and the families of all military personnel.
PATRIOTISM. Regardless of the politics and rhetoric that accompany all military deployments, the recipient rises above the rhetoric and defends the Constitution and the ideals of American freedom at all costs.
ESTEEM. The recipient of the NGS Freedom Award holds the American Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine in the highest esteem possible and both recognizes and articulates the need to establish new foundations within the American public to help all service members re-enter our society with grace, dignity, honor and unconditional support of our men and women who wore the uniform of the United States of America.