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Soldier self-amputates leg to aid battle buddies: Three Soldiers earned MOH for their acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan

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Top 2019 Soldiers’ stories range from saving lives to spotlighting fitness

By Devon L. Suits, Army News Service

This year three Soldiers were recognized with the Medal of Honor for their acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan. A handful of Soldiers revealed their fitness potential, either by maxing the Army Combat Fitness Test or by participating in one of the largest fitness competitions around the globe. One Colorado-based Soldier walked away with a pageant crown, while another Soldier was promoted to his 16th rank in 35 years. 

Sgt. Aechere Crump and Pfc. Victor Alamo visit with Spc. Ezra Maes during their recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center. Crump and Alamo survived the tank accident with Maes in early 2018. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)


Spc. Ezra Maes and his two armor crew teammates were jolted awake by their M1A2 Abrams tank as it rolled downhill at nearly 90 mph with them inside. The sheer force of the vehicle hitting an embankment threw Maes from his position, and his right leg was immediately pinned down by the vehicle’s turret gear.

Recognizing that his teammates needed help, Maes “pushed and pulled” at his pinned appendage until he felt a sharp tear. With his leg removed, he quickly applied a tourniquet. At the same time, the tank’s gunner, Sgt. Aechere Crump, realized their communications were inoperable as she tried to radio in for support.

It was around that moment that Maes’ phone rang. With one leg cut and the other broken, Crump retrieved the cellular device and tossed it to Maes. He swiftly unlocked his phone and sent a text message to a friend — help was on its way. His Story by  Elaine Sanchez, Brooke Army Medical Cente

“If I didn’t help myself, my crew, no one was going to,” said Maes, now assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Center Warrior Transition Battalion. “I knew I had to do everything I could to survive.”

A year earlier, the Army had deployed Maes, an armor crewman stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, to Poland in support of a joint training mission called Atlantic Resolve. He served as the loader for the main cannon of an M1A2 Abrams tank, a massive 65 ton tank known for its heavy armor and lethal firepower. 

Exhausted on the second day of a weeklong rotation in Slovakia, he and two other crew members fell asleep in the tank that evening. He was jolted awake a few hours later by the sudden movement of the tank heading downhill. 

“I called out to the driver, ‘Step on the brakes!'” Maes said. “But he shouted back that it wasn’t him.”

The parking brake had failed. The crew quickly initiated emergency braking procedures, but the operational systems were unresponsive due to a hydraulic leak. 

The tank was now careening down the hill at nearly 90 mph. “We realized there was nothing else we could do and just held on,” Maes said. 

After a few sharp bumps, they crashed into an embankment at full speed. Maes was thrown across the tank, his leg catching in the turret gear. He then felt the full force of the tank turret sliding onto his leg. 

His initial thought was his leg was broken. His next thought was he needed to get free so he could assist Sgt. Aechere Crump, the gunner, who was bleeding out from a cut on her thigh. The driver, Pfc. Victor Alamo, was pinned up front with a broken back.

“I pushed and pulled at my leg as hard as I could to get loose and felt a sharp tear,” Maes said. “I thought I had dislodged my leg, but when I moved away, my leg was completely gone.”

Freed from the pressure of the turret, the blood poured out of his wound at an alarming rate, but with other lives on the line, Maes pushed his panic and any thought of pain aside. He pulled himself up and into the back of the tank to grab a tourniquet from the medical kit. Halfway there, he began to feel lightheaded from the blood loss. 

“I knew I was going into shock,” he said. “All I could think about was no one knows we’re down here. 

“Either I step up or we all die.” 

Maes began shock procedures on himself — stay calm, keep heart rate down, elevate lower body — and cinched his belt into a makeshift tourniquet to slow down the heavy bleeding. He called out to Crump, who had staunched her own bleeding with a belt tourniquet, to radio for help. 

Maes’ heart sank when Crump said the radio wasn’t working. 

But then he heard an incredible sound; his cell phone was ringing.

Maes’ phone was the only one that wasn’t broken and the only one with working cell phone service. With one leg cut and the other broken, Crump crawled to reach Maes’ phone and threw it down to him. He unlocked the phone and sent his friend a text. Help was on the way.

His last memory of that location was his sergeant major running up the hill carrying his leg on his shoulder. “I wanted to keep it, see if it could be reattached, but it was pulverized,” Maes recalled.

Maes, who had also broken his ankle, pelvis in three places, and shoulder, was rushed to a local hospital, his first helicopter ride, before being flown to Landstuhl, Germany, and then on to BAMC. Between an infection he picked up overseas and nearly daily surgeries to fight it, he spent four months in intensive care. 

“I feel super lucky,” he said. “My crew all does. So many things could have gone wrong. Besides my leg, we all walked away pretty much unscathed.”

Sgt. Travis Atkins stands next to his vehicle after it was damaged by an improvised explosive devise in Iraq during 2007. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)


President Donald Trump and Army leaders recognized three Soldiers for their heroic and life-saving actions during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia (left) in Iraq. (Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of David Bellavia)

Staff Sgt. Travis W. Atkins, a 10th Mountain Division squad leader, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in March. While in Iraq, Atkins saved three Soldiers’ lives by wrapping his arms and body around a suicide bomber. His son, Trevor Oliver, had just turned 11 when his father passed. At 22, Oliver attended the White House ceremony to accept the award on his father’s behalf.

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia was recognized in June for his heroic actions on Nov. 10, 2004. As a squad leader during the second battle of Fallujah, Bellavia repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to help defend his team and their position. He is the first living recipient of the Iraq War to earn the Medal of Honor.

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Matthew Williams assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), conducts long range weapons training at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, during the fall of 2009. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Matthew Williams)

In October, Master Sgt. Matthew O. Williams received his medal for his actions on April 6, 2008. Serving as a weapons sergeant with the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Williams helped stop the enemy from overrunning the team’s position. Through the near-seven-hour operation, Williams moved around the battlespace and helped relocate four critically wounded for medical evacuation.


First Lt. Angela May DiMattia was the first active-duty Soldier to win the title of Miss Colorado after competing in a “United States of America Pageant” in March.

As a first time competitor, DiMattia was determined to use the national competition to highlight on-post charities and help empower young women. Winning the completion landed her a financial contribution to a charity of her choice.

At the time, DiMattia was serving as the Family Readiness Leader for the 52nd Brigade Engineer Battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado. Through it all, DiMattia attributes her success to her Soldier teammates, command, family and loved ones, who all provided their care and support. 


As the force transitions to the Army Combat Fitness Test, a handful of Soldiers came close to, or achieved, a perfect PT score.

In June, Spc. Ryan Sowder, assigned to the 2112th Transportation Company out of Burlington, Kentucky, scored a 597 out of a possible 600 points. In August, Sowder pitted himself against some of the fittest people on the planet during the 2019 CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He placed 30th overall in the competition. 

A month later, Maj. Timothy Cox, a 22nd Chemical Battalion executive officer at Fort Bliss, Texas, was the first Soldier to record a perfect score. After scoring a 587 during his initial test in December 2018, Cox spent the next six months training before maxing out his ACFT.

Later in the year, Spc. Juan Gonzalez, with the 32nd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Drum, New York, was the second Soldier to achieve a perfect ACFT score. Additionally, Spc. Benjamin Ritchie was the first Soldier in Basic Combat Training to max the new fitness test. 


Capt. Chandler Smith, an armor officer and member of the Army Warrior Fitness Team, and Lt. Col Anthony Kurz, a Special Forces officer assigned to the Asymmetric Warfare Group at Fort Meade, Maryland, recently participated in the 2019 CrossFit games along with Sowder.

As a former wrestler and West Point cadet, Smith continues to leverage his athletic talent to be a positive example for all of his peers and teammates. During the grueling four-day event, Smith placed 15th overall, while seizing the opportunity to share his Army story at one of the largest fitness competitions in the world.

Dealing with a slight injury during the games, Kurz placed 9th overall in the 40-44-year-old men’s master competition bracket. At the start of the games, Kurz proudly displayed his Special Forces flag as a nod to the community. He was proud of his overall performance and said he looks forward to returning to Madison in the future.

Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Zayas and other members of the Warrior Fitness Team attended the games to show support for their Soldier teammates and engage with the broader fitness community. 

Zayas, a detentions NCO, recently moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to join the fitness team. Determined to make the CrossFit games in the future, Zayas continues to put countless hours into his fitness and nutrition routine to one day reach his goal.


In June, then-Colonel Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of operations, G-3, with Army Cyber Command, was promoted to brigadier general, his 16th rank held throughout his 35-year career. 

During the early years of his career, Rey excelled as a member of the Army special operations community. He was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant first class and then transitioned into the warrant officer corps. 

Rey’s leadership talent motivated him to become an officer. As a warrant officer 2, Rey transitioned to officer candidate school, continuing his career path as a second lieutenant. Rey then spend the next 23 years moving through the ranks until his current position.


Maj. Karl D. Buckingham, a Command and General Staff Officer’s Course student, was busy working out in the gym of his apartment building in Kansas City when someone ran in yelling for support. Someone had just been shot . 

In response, Buckingham moved to the front of the building to find three men on the ground with serious injuries. Garnering support from another person, Buckingham leveraged his Army training and provided first aid to one of the victims until emergency responders arrived. For his actions in February, Buckingham command recommended him for a Soldier’s Medal. 


Spc. Daryn Colledge, a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter repairer with the Idaho National Guard, is a former NFL offensive lineman that joined the Army in 2016. 

He started his career with the Green Bay Packers and helped the team to a Super Bowl victory in 2010. He later played for the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins before retiring from the league.

Determined to serve his country, Colledge enlisted in the Guard and later volunteered for a deployment with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. While in Afghanistan, Colledge was assigned to a medical evacuation crew — a mission that provides life-saving support to patients. 


Carly Schroeder, former Lizzy McGuire and General Hospital actress, traded in her previous life to become a Soldier. In June, she graduated Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

During her time in BCT, Schroeder chose to keep her life as an actress a secret, fearing that people would treat or see her differently. While word eventually spread about her previous career, she became close with her teammates, developing several lasting friendships. 


James and Laura Richardson have spent more than three decades adapting to new assignments and deployments. With both reaching the rank of lieutenant general, the Richardson family had their share of challenges as a dual military couple.

During permanent changes of station, the couple learned to be proactive by researching their new installations and starting their house hunting and childcare search as early as possible. Both of them relied on other military families and other Army resources to weather the storms.

The Richardsons shared secrets of their success and said the Army is currently making changes to its Soldier and Family Readiness Groups. They said the SFRG is a vital resource, providing Soldiers with command information and them with available services.

Sgt. Travis Atkins stands next to his vehicle after it was damaged by an improvised explosive devise in Iraq during 2007. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

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