FORT HOOD, Texas - Standing tall, a young Soldier received his award-the Silver Star medal-the third highest military award given for gallantry in action against the enemy, preceded only by the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.
Spc. Steven Cornford, who was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom 06-08, was presented the medal by Brig. Gen. (P) Vincent Brooks in front of the 3-8 Cav headquarters, April 18, for his actions during the night of April 8, 2007.
Cornford's family, from Mountain Home, Idaho, was there to watch him receive the award.
His father, Walter Cornford, said he had a hard time believing that his son was going to be receiving such prestigious award.
"I couldn't believe it was him," said Walter. "Steven is a completely different person than when he went into the Army.
"He was headed down the wrong road and decided to change his life and he's changed it," he said.
Cornford earned his award for exceptional courage under fire during Operation Samurai. The mission was an air assault into a village with known insurgent safe houses. Once Cornford's team was on the ground, attack helicopters spotted insurgents on the move.
His team chased the insurgents into a tree line.
"We were chasing them down for quite a while; it was probably 1500 meters," he said.
As they approached the wood line, they were slowed down by thick mud. Suddenly, automatic-weapon's fire came from inside the wood line, and an enemy bullet went through Cornford's left shoulder.
"We got about ten meters away from the wood line and there were muzzle flashes and I got hit," he said. "I went down and I popped my bipod legs out from my pistol grip and started shooting."
Cornford said he could feel the pain from his wound, but the adrenaline pumping through his veins allowed him to ignore it.
"It hurt, but it didn't at the same time," said Cornford.
The then 18-year-old Soldier fired so many rounds at the enemy in the tree line, he nearly ran out.
Desperate thoughts ran through his mind during the fight.
"I'm going to die, so I have to keep fighting so I don't die," Cornford said he was thinking at the time.
"I was mad the whole time," he said. "Mad is what kept me awake and kept me shooting."
Then the fire fight took a turn for the worse. 1st Lt. Phillip Neel, Cornford's platoon leader, who was moving toward Cornford to provide support, was mortally wounded.
Cornford tried to keep Neel in the fight by talking to him and encouraging him.
"I remember he was about ten meters behind me and I said, 'Sir, keep talking to me, don't stop talking,'" said Cornford. "He kept talking to me and I said, 'We're going home, we're going home. It's going to be alright, you're going to make it.'"
Cornford described the next minutes as chaos, with gunfire and explosions all around him.
"We were about ten meters away from the enemy the whole time," he said.
"I kept shooting and I crawled back to Lt. Neel, because he stopped talking to me," said Cornford. "I woke him up and I said, "Sir, you have to stay with me. Keep talking to me, keep talking to me."
Cornford did all he could to render aid to his platoon leader, simultaneously firing his weapon. He did it all with only one fully functioning arm.
"I tried to help him and I did everything I could," said Cornford.
"I had to shoot and I ran out of ammo, so I started using (Neel's) ammo," he said. "I pulled a couple of grenades off of his gear and I threw one, and then my squad leader came out of nowhere and threw a grenade."
The fight was finished soon after that, and another squad moved in to clear the area of the enemy.
Although Cornford did everything he could, his platoon leader didn't survive the fight.
"Lt. Neel was probably the biggest hero in that whole situation," said Cornford.
"He lost his life for his men," he said. "He did everything he could as a leader. He did what he was supposed to do."
Even though the Silver Star ceremony was all about his actions, Cornford wished there could have been one other person present.
"I just wish Lt. Neel was here to go through it with me," he said.