They risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and lived to tell about it. On Saturday, soldiers from the Arizona National Guard were formally thanked for their service by Gov. Janet Napolitano and Arizona Guard commander Maj. Gen. David Rataczak at the Guard’s annual conference in Carefree.
The governor pinned Purple Hearts onto the camouflaged fatigues of six soldiers, who were recently wounded in the wars, and paid tribute to a dozen others who were wounded and awarded Purple Hearts within the past year in a ceremony.
All who received a Purple Heart also were given a special Purple Heart coin at the conference.
“Arizonans can go to bed at night knowing the Arizona National Guard is there to respond. ... The purpose of today is to say thank you on behalf of all Arizonans,” Napolitano said, acknowledging the soldiers’ role not just abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the United States.
Napolitano said more than 6,000 Arizona Guardsmen have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
She said a number of Arizona soldiers also engaged in Project JumpStart protecting the U.S.-Mexican border, aided firefighters battling wildfires in California and Arizona, and helped flood victims on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The distinguished Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces who have been wounded or killed in combat.
A total of 123 Arizona Guardsmen have received Purple Hearts since 2001, according to the Arizona National Guard.
Napolitano also announced the formation of a task force to help returning veterans.
“We are bringing together faith-based organizations and community organizations with the government. Our goal is effective outreach for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, making their re-entry to Arizona a smooth one,” she said.
Many of the Guardsmen and their families, who packed a ballroom at the Carefree Resort and Villas, expressed appreciation for Saturday’s ceremony.
“It’s obviously very touching,” said Sgt. Mark Hilliard, 48, of Safford.
Hilliard, a seven-year member of the Arizona Guard’s 259th Security Force who formerly served in the Air Force, knows he is lucky to be alive.
Hilliard, a gunner, was wounded in March 2007 when his convoy drove over a bomb that was hidden inside a tumbleweed north of Baghdad. Hilliard caught shrapnel in his right arm and leg.
He returned to Arizona last June and was awarded his Purple Heart a month later in a ceremony at the 56th Street Armory in Phoenix.
He said he keeps his Purple Heart on a wall next to the Purple Heart of his 21-year-old son Michael, who is currently serving in Afghanistan.
Spc. Annette Farr, 43, of Phoenix, a vehicle mechanic, said the governor visited her unit in Iraq early last year.
Farr said her Purple Heart, which she was awarded in February, brings back memories of her friends’ sacrifices.
“It makes me think about others in my unit that have been injured,” said Farr, a four-year member of the Arizona Guard who formerly served in the Marines.
Her 15-month stint in Iraq was cut short by three months when her convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. She said shrapnel tore through her left foot, breaking a bone and leaving a hole the size of a quarter. She is still undergoing rehabilitation.
“I’m very proud of her,” said her husband, Wayne, “and glad she made it back home.”