Lance Cpl. Charley McGuire had something he wished to say.
He had been waiting nearly 29 months for this moment — he couldn't just let it pass silently.
So he spun on his heels and faced the crowd, a gymnasium filled with nearly 100 friends, family members and Marines from every war since Korea.
McGuire wore a gray sweater, not his Marine dress uniform, because he retired from active duty more than a year ago.
He wore a tense look on his face. That's the post-traumatic stress disorder talking, he said later.
And he wore something else: a brand-new, oh-so-purple Purple Heart that a Marine colonel had just pinned to his chest.
A Purple Heart that McGuire earned Aug. 24, 2009, in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan.
A Purple Heart that the Marine Corps forgot to formally present for more than two years, until a group of Omaha Marines got together and decided to right that wrong.
A Purple Heart that McGuire finally wore Friday afternoon, as he turned to face the crowd.
McGuire gathered his thoughts for a moment. He exhaled loudly enough for everyone to hear.
There was a story behind that deep breath.
In the summer of 2009, the Tekamah High School graduate was one of more than 4,000 Marines who invaded Afghanistan's Helmand River valley. Back then, Helmand was the home base of the Afghan Taliban. Back then, it was the starting line of the global heroin trade, the spot where the area's poppy fields got harvested, manufactured into black-tar heroin and eventually shipped to Eastern Europe.
On the invasion's first day, the Taliban shot machine guns, mortars and rockets at the incoming Marines. That first day, a rocket exploded in the air maybe 30 feet from where Lance Cpl. McGuire stood.
The Marines quickly took military control of the area, but the Taliban still held deadly trump cards: the homemade bombs they could dig into the soft soil or hide underneath piles of trash.
McGuire became the team leader in a group of trucks that transported equipment, supplies and food to Marines scattered across the province.
Nearly every day they would traverse the bumpy roads of Helmand Province. Nearly every day they would stop at least once because someone had spotted an improvised explosive device, or IED, on the path ahead.
On Aug. 24, 2009, McGuire and the two other men in his truck rolled over a roadside bomb just miles from their starting point. It didn't do much damage, just covered everyone in dust, he says, and shook up everyone.
They were back on the road, the truck's radio cranked up, trying to forget the explosion, when they rolled over a second IED.
McGuire suffered a serious concussion and a separated shoulder. The other two Marines both got concussions too.
“My ears still ring to this day,” McGuire said. “I think theirs do too.”
McGuire stayed in Afghanistan, and for the rest of his deployment he continued to drive the dangerous roads under constant threat of another blast.
When the Marines came home in November 2009, the Purple Heart ceremonies started. McGuire sat in the audience and watched as many in his unit got theirs pinned to their chests. He cheered them on. But McGuire also had been administratively awarded a Purple Heart. He wondered, why am I not getting mine?
For a long time the Purple Heart was the least of his loved ones' worries.
The McGuire who returned home to Nebraska seemed constantly jittery, eyes scanning whatever room he was in. He drank way too much and slept too little. He ran out of patience every day and snapped at relatives and close friends.
Six months after returning home, his mom, LeAnn McGuire, had seen enough. She called the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Soon McGuire had a diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder.
And he had help: therapy sessions, group meetings and coping techniques to use when he felt anxious.
Slowly, McGuire has pulled himself out of his post-deployment struggles.
He got a job. He enrolled at Metropolitan Community College, starting classes to become a diesel mechanic. Today, when he feels nervous, he goes into his pocket and pulls out a PTSD coin he received in his support group. He rubs it in his palm to remind himself that everything will be OK.
“Don't get me wrong — I still have my moments,” McGuire said Friday. “I just try to push my way through it.”
Even as he felt better, one thing continued to gnaw at McGuire: What about that Purple Heart?
Two weeks ago, wondering that same thing, LeAnn McGuire called Marine Maj. Bill Burkhart. Burkhart happens to be the district coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, a Marine regiment specifically set up to help active-duty and veteran Marines navigate the post-deployment world. He helps Marines get into college using the GI Bill and helps them find jobs. He connects Marines to nonprofit mental health organizations, and sometimes he helps them get access to their old service records.
Burkhart listened to the Purple Heart story. He made some phone calls.
He called Capt. Rodney Malone of the Omaha-area Engineer Maintenance Company. Could we use your building for a ceremony?
He called Col. Kirk Bruno, president of the Armed Forces Communications-Electronics Association in Omaha. Could you be available to award a Purple Heart?
So on Friday afternoon, Capt. Malone stood at a podium and read a history of the Purple Heart, an honor for American soldiers first awarded by Gen. George Washington.
He introduced Col. Bruno, who walked to the front of the gymnasium. He talked about the sacrifice McGuire and his family have given to the country. He called McGuire a hero.
Then he called the 24-year-old to the front of the gym. He pinned the Purple Heart on McGuire's chest and shook his hand.
That's when McGuire turned to face the crowd.
He was also turning to face something else. Large crowds, new situations, talking to strangers — all those things trigger his PTSD.
But McGuire gathered his thoughts, breathed deeply and pushed ahead.
He had waited 29 months. He had something to say.
“It's been a long time coming,” he told the crowd. “I'm glad to stand here in front of you guys. Thanks.”
Then he hugged his family. He hugged his friends. And he shook the hand of every Marine who had shown up at his Purple Heart ceremony.
Thanks for coming, he said again and again.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, firstname.lastname@example.org
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