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12-05-2004, 06:30
From today's Orlando Sentinel

Special Forces receive medals Army unit 1 of most decorated

By Tania deLuzuriaga | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted December 5, 2004

OCALA -- They came from all over Florida on Saturday, dressed in Army fatigues, with wives and children in tow, to accept honors that Army officials say makes them one of the most-decorated units in the nation.

More than 50 members of the Florida Army National Guard Special Forces Group gathered Saturday at Central Florida Community College to accept two Silver Stars, 54 Bronze Stars, 28 Army Commendations and one Purple Heart.

Sgt. 1st Class Alex Alvarez of Orange City said winning the Bronze Star wasn't about heroism or valor or anything extraordinary. Instead, it signifies the culmination of a year spent doing a job he was trained for and making a difference in a struggling nation thousands of miles from home.

"It was a life-changing trip," he said. "I felt like I was doing good."

Members of the Ocala-based Company A, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group are part of the Army's elite fighting division, also known as Green Berets that is trained in unconventional warfare.

The group spent a year in Afghanistan, serving as advisers to the Afghan National Army and conducting combat missions in one of the most dangerous parts of the country: the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"These guys went into the meat grinder," battalion commander Sgt. Maj. James M. Bateman said. But inside the combat zone lay life lessons. Watching Afghan children play with sticks and rocks, 29-year-old Alvarez realized how lucky his own family was. In working alongside the fledgling Afghan Army, Alvarez learned to trust them. "They are excellent soldiers," he said. "They are very respectful; they'd do anything for us."

Army officials said that it has been 60 years since members of the Florida National Guard were awarded the prestigious Silver Star -- a medal reserved for those who show gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Lewis of Naples and Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Betten of Keystone Heights were awarded the Silver Star after they encountered a group of enemy soldiers while on a reconnaissance mission in March.

"They effectively kept that force from attacking the whole coalition," said Carol Darby, spokeswoman for the Army's Special Operations Command.

In addition to keeping the enemy from attacking their comrades, the men also covered one another, saving each other's lives as well.

"Neither thought they'd make it back," said Lt. Col. James Craig of Orlando, who is the battalion commander for the Special Forces in Florida and a detective with the Orlando Police Department.

Though Army officials say that it is highly unusual for a small company to be so decorated, the men of Company A don't seem to think they've done anything extraordinary.

"I didn't go over there to earn the Bronze Star," Sgt. 1st Class Terry Sanford said. "I don't feel totally like I deserve it."

Sanford, an officer with the Orlando Police Department, couldn't attend the ceremony Saturday, but he will get his Bronze Star in a ceremony later this month. He said he was surprised to be nominated.

"I was just there doing my job to the best of my ability," he said. "I love my country and I love my family. I'd definitely do it again."

That sentiment is shared by many of the men. Alvarez, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said after returning home to his wife and 3-year-old daughter, he thinks a lot about Afghanistan.

"There's days I'm working and I miss Afghanistan," he said. "I know it sounds weird, but I look forward to going back."

12-05-2004, 08:08