10/28/07 — SJAFB sergeant earns Purple Heart

View Archive

SJAFB sergeant earns Purple Heart

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 28, 2007 2:00 AM

Somewhere in the desert, along a stretch known to U.S. troops as "The Cloverleaf," an insurgent buries another Improvised Explosive Device in the sand.

Cleveland Sanders knows the road well.

The Air Force staff sergeant nearly died on it.

But the 27-year-old will tell you that not all who have encountered an IED along that convoy route made it home.

So when 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Steve Kwast pinned the Purple Heart to his chest Thursday, Sanders was humbled, accepting the decoration on behalf of his friends, family and those with their own tales from The Cloverleaf.

"We left camp and we were clearing a route for a convoy," Sanders said.

"We cleared (the route) and we were on our way back to camp. ... Once we crossed over the median, out of nowhere, 'Boom.' It had clipped the back of my Humvee."

The airman does not really remember what happened next.

When the blast occurred, he was on top of the vehicle manning a .50 caliber turret gun -- and, being exposed, got knocked around to the point of concussion.

"The IED smacked me into the side of the turret. I was knocked out for a while, you know, out of it," Sanders said. "All I remember is that my doc was inside. He was trying to pull me down off the gun."

But things did not look much better below.

"The Humvee, it was all smoked out," he said. "You couldn't see anything."

So he got back up on his gun - not knowing if more attacks were looming -- until the vehicle moved out of the "kill zone."

"I'm not going to lie, I was scared," Sanders said. "Every time you leave the wire to do that type of mission, you should be scared. If you're not, you're kind of crazy."

None of his comrades had been injured in the blast.

Luckily, Sanders said, the copper projectiles from the IED did not make it inside in the Humvee.

"I could have been a lot worse," he said. "If they go in the Humvee, they kind of just shred everybody up."

Maybe that is why he was so frightened up on that gun.

He could not bear the thought of losing a member of his "family" out there in the desert.

"You become close, real close," Sanders said. "It gets to a point where you would put your life on the line for those people. You have been training with them, you deploy with them. It's like my brothers and sisters out there."

And then there was thought of not making it home to his wife and children, of never again driving to Raleigh for a weekend with his parents and childhood friends.

"It stays on your mind," he said. "You think about it, but, at the same time, you try not to think about too much."

Thoughts of happier times only make a deployment harder.

So less than a month after the attack, Sanders "begged" for medical clearance to get back on that gun -- to get back in the fight with his "brothers" and "sisters."

Before his return home, the 4th Security Forces airman would survive two more encounters with IEDs along The Cloverleaf.

He watched friends leave that base in the desert and never make it back.

"I actually lost a friend out there," Sanders said. "He was Army."

From behind a desk in an office at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the airman looks down at the ground and brings his hands over his face.

"It was kind of weird," he said. "I don't even know what to say about it."

Sanders would gladly give back his Purple Heart to see the faces of those he has known and lost at war.

But knowing he cannot, he will wear it proudly as a reminder of those missions along The Cloverleaf and the men and women who suffered much worse fates there than he did.