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Face of Defense: Guardsman Shows Courage Under Fire

By Army 2nd Lt. Kimberly Snow
Special to American Forces Press Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Feb. 12, 2010 – Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Wanner prefers to be referred to as a soldier, not as a hero. But he graciously humors those who insist on the latter.

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Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland awards the Silver Star Medal to Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark A. Wanner on Feb. 6, 2010, at the Ohio Statehouse. Wanner is the first Ohio National Guard member to be awarded the Silver Star since the Korean War. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan Cleary
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

On Feb. 6, the Ohio Army National Guard Special Forces medical sergeant stood unassumingly on a stage in the Ohio Statehouse atrium here to receive the Silver Star Medal — the nation’s third-highest medal for valor in combat.

Despite the season’s worst snowstorm, several hundred people, including his fellow Green Berets from the Columbus-based Company B, 2nd Battalion of the Army National Guard’s 19th Special Forces Group, traveled to Central Ohio to attend the event honoring Wanner for his actions in Afghanistan during a firefight in May when he saved the life of a fellow Green Beret.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Army Maj. Gen. Gregory L. Wayt, the adjutant general of Ohio, were on hand to present Wanner with the medal. It is the first such award for an Ohio National Guard member since the Korean War.

“We are in the presence of greatness today,” Strickland said. “Many people live their entire lives wondering if they’ve made a difference. But Sergeant 1st Class Mark Wanner never has to worry about that, does he?”

Fighting back tears, Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Clifton recounted the day he almost lost his life after being shot multiple times during a raid on a Taliban compound in eastern Afghanistan.

“I’m standing here today, alive, because of the heroic and competent actions Mark performed on the night of May 31, 2009 -- Memorial Day,” Clifton said.

The previous week, Clifton and his team had received word that a known Taliban leader soon would be meeting with about a half dozen Taliban fighters in a nearby village.

After waiting for five days with what Wanner referred to as “tactical patience,” the team received word that their target was in position. It had been training with their Afghan counterparts for nearly five months, and the plan was to allow the Afghans to take the lead and for the U.S. soldiers to follow closely behind.

But when the team approached the village, the Afghans already were in trouble, and the situation was deteriorating quickly. They had expected five or six Taliban fighters, but there were at least 30. They reacted immediately.

“I led some guys into a doorway, and that just happened to be the room that had 80 percent of the threat,” Clifton said. “I knew something wasn’t quite right. Then I got hit.”

Clifton had taken at least four rounds. The first entered his pelvis just below his body armor, the second hit the chest plate of his body armor, the third shattered his left forearm, and the last round hit his helmet, knocking off his night-vision goggles.

When he saw his injured arm and realized his rifle had dropped in front of him, Clifton knew he was in trouble.

He headed back out and almost immediately ran into Army Sgt. 1st Class Matt Scheaffer, a team medic. Wanner, the team’s senior medic, realized Clifton was hit and immediately ran to assist Scheaffer.

Rounds splashed the ground around them as they began working on their wounded comrade. Realizing the danger to their patient, they quickly dragged him around to what they assumed was the safer side of the building.

As the two medics continued to work on Clifton, Wanner began to realize the extent of his patient’s wounds. Wanner knew they couldn’t move Clifton unless they had a stretcher, so he ran to the vehicle to retrieve one. As the medic returned, the group began receiving fire from a window about 15 feet away, forcing them to press up against the wall of the building.

As he continued to work on Clifton, Wanner coordinated suppressing fire on the window and told Scheaffer to grab a fragmentation grenade.

Wanner kept on the back of his body armor and tossed the grenade into the room from which they were taking fire. The tactic worked. It subdued the enemy long enough to allow the medics to race Clifton to a vehicle for evacuation.

Wanner continued to provide life-saving care as they bounced across the desert to a medical evacuation site, avoiding the main routes they knew to be laced with roadside bombs.

When the medical evacuation helicopters arrived, Wanner boarded the one carrying his patient, and he didn’t leave until Clifton was transported to the U.S. Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, three days later.

“He was there every step of the way, ensuring I was receiving the best possible care,” Clifton said of Wanner’s actions. “He assisted the flight surgeon in the medevac, the trauma surgeons in the [operating room], and even helped out a wounded soldier that lay next to me. That’s Mark, … always going over and above the call of duty.”

Wanner, a North Dakota resident, spent nine years in his home state’s National Guard before joining the Ohio National Guard in 2000, when he accepted a job as a researcher with the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine.

In 2003, he left his job at the university to begin two years of Special Forces qualification and specialized language and medical training. When he moved back to North Dakota, he did not even consider leaving his Ohio National Guard Special Forces unit.

“I find it remarkable that he travels every month to train with these men right here,” Wayt said. “That speaks to the brotherhood that exists inside this unit.”

Throughout nearly 20 years of service, Wanner has worked in several specialties, training initially as a vehicle mechanic, then as a carpentry and masonry specialist and combat engineer in the North Dakota National Guard before joining the Ohio National Guard and earning his Green Beret. He earned a bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State University in 1996 with a major in microbiology and minors in chemistry and biotechnology.

Wayt referred to Wanner as a “fixer,” who epitomizes the spirit of the Silver Star Medal.

“If you have mechanical trouble, you call Mark. If you have a house problem and you want something built or fixed, you call Mark,” Wayt said. “And as Sergeant Clifton can attest, he fixes life-threatening injuries as well.”

Wanner, who currently works building custom homes in North Dakota, shrugged off the praise.

“I was just the closest person to him that day. The real heroes are the whole team, our Afghan counterparts,” he said. “The whole team’s a hero, because everyone did their part.”

Nonetheless, Clifton credits the medic who never left his side, ensuring he made it home to his wife and two young sons.

“I’ve thanked Mark several times since that day, and his response is always the same,” Clifton said. “‘Ah, you would have done the same thing. I was just doing my job.’”

(Army 2nd Lt. Kimberly Snow serves with the Ohio National Guard.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageOhio Gov. Ted Strickland awards the Silver Star Medal to Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark A. Wanner on Feb. 6, 2010, at the Ohio Statehouse. Wanner is the first Ohio National Guard member to be awarded the Silver Star since the Korean War. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan Cleary  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. 1st Class Mark A. Wanner sits at Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s desk prior to a Feb. 6, 2010, Silver Star Medal award ceremony in the Ohio Statehouse atrium. Also pictured with Wanner and Strickland, left, are Army Maj. Gen. Gregory L. Wayt, right, Ohio adjutant general, and Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Clifton. Wanner received the medal for heroic actions that saved Clifton’s life during an operation in eastern Afghanistan on May 31, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan Cleary  
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