View Full Version : Uncommon valor

10-22-07, 07:12 AM
Uncommon valor
By Joshua Molina
Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News
Article Launched:10/22/2007 01:37:30 AM PDT

The mortar fire was flying all around him, and several U.S. Marines were down. As adrenaline fueled his soul, Shawn Nirdlinger threw his body on top of a wounded fallen soldier to shield him from the barrage of mortar.

Six rounds later, the Iraq battle was over. One Marine was dead and 21 others were badly injured. But Nirdlinger, a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman third class, was well enough to treat 13 of them and save many of their lives. The medic reached into one Marine's pocket, pulled out his identification card and pushed it into a sunken hole in the man's chest - to keep the air inside him. The Marine survived.

In a rare reward reserved for the most courageous sailors during combat, Nirdlinger was bumped up in rank Sunday at a tearful ceremony attended by about 100 sailors, Marines, friends and relatives gathered at the Navy Operational Support Center in San Jose.

Nirdlinger, 32, was promoted to hospital corpsman second class as part of the Combat Meritorious Advancement Program. Launched less than two years ago, the program allows commanders to promote sailors "who display uncommon valor and extraordinary leadership while engaged in, or in direct support of, combat operations." Only about 100 sailors have been promoted under the program, which has rigid standards.

"I was just doing my job," said a starkly humble Nirdlinger, a Mountain View resident. "You don't think about anything. You just do what you are trained to do when something like that happens."

With his wife, Tamar, by his side, his right hand bandaged from a separate accident, Nirdlinger stood in camouflage - with an enormous smile - stunned by the standing ovation and all of the attention.

"Anyone worth their salt would have done the same thing," he said.

Nirdlinger said he was always someone who wanted to help people, so the Navy was a natural choice. A risk-taker who likes adventure, he joked: "What they do for a living is what I do for fun."

He was full of joy Sunday, but the last year has been full of turmoil. About a month after the April 13, 2006, attack on the Marines at Martini, Iraq, Nirdlinger nearly died while on reconnaissance patrol. He and five others were riding in a Humvee when an improvised explosive device went off.

Everyone riding in the back of the vehicle was killed - except Nirdlinger.

But the ambush tore off part of his scalp, broke his jaw and right arm, severed an artery and knocked out teeth.

He remembers riding in the back of the Humvee and then waking up in the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto two months later.

He had been in a coma.

Nirdlinger earned the Purple Heart after that attack.

"It's been really rough," said Tamar Nirdlinger, her eyes red and full of tears. "It's been emotionally and physically exhausting. I feel like I have aged 20 years."

The two met in the Navy and were married four years ago. She spent much of the last year at his hospital bed. Her husband's injuries have been traumatic, and she is in awe of his courage.

"It's amazing what he did," she said, patting him on the back with her hand.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Meghan Michael said Shawn Nirdlinger's actions in April 2006 are a reminder there are still real heroes among us.

"We're kind of in this day and age when people take things for granted," she said. "How many people given that situation would have buckled under the pressure. It's phenomenal what he did."

Nirdlinger, who has months of physical therapy ahead of him, said he is waiting for the Navy's medical board to make a decision regarding his physical condition - which will determine whether he will stay in the Navy.

In the meantime, he plans to attend classes at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He hopes to specialize in Italian and French cuisine.

It's not that big of a stretch to go from the battlefield to the kitchen, said Nirdlinger. "It's a great way of helping people."

Sometimes the sailor ponders what happened to him and wonders why he survived two harrowing incidents.

Somewhere down the road, he said, he might have to help people again.

Yes, he said, "I think about why. There's a reason."

Contact Joshua Molina at jmolina@mercurynews.com or (408) 275-2002

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