Captain Thomas Harper is a 2004 graduate of Georgia Military College.
France confers rare honor on Ocala special forces soldier for combat heroism
By Joe Callahan
Published: Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 6:52 p.m.
The mortar shell whistled from a Taliban nest atop a mountain ridge overlooking villages in the Kapisa Province of northeast Afghanistan and into the middle of an Army National Guard special forces unit.
The 2nd Battalion, 20th Special Forces unit was providing security for the French Foreign Legion in the Uzbeen Valley as part of Operation Septentrion, protecting Task Force Lafayette troops engaged in a classified mission.
The blast divided the unit. Shrapnel tore into four of the five soldiers, including one from Ocala. They were now exposed to enemy gunfire. The rest of the unit couldn't get to them.
Despite injuries, one of those men — Capt. Thomas Harper, a 2002 Forest High School graduate — ran through a hail of bullets to retrieve rocket shells. Harper was determined to protect French forces at all costs.
Several American soldiers, including Harper, fought for more than an hour until backup arrived and beat back the insurgent attack.
For their bravery, the five Americans were awarded the Croix de la Valeur Militaire — French Cross of Military Valor — on Monday at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Harper said he was honored to receive the prestigious award, the French equivalent of the U.S. military's Silver Star. It is an honor rarely bestowed on any solider, especially those who are not French.
"They were trying to get at the French operating in the valley," Harper told National Guard officials after the ceremony. "We prevented that from happening, allowing them to conduct their mission."
The mortar round that exploded near Harper left him groggy and momentarily disoriented. As the fog in his head cleared, he discovered that shrapnel had torn through his shoulder and that he and his comrades were under heavy attack.
But Harper's attention quickly turned to Master Sgt. Dave Neumer. The blast shattered both of Neumer's legs. He was unconscious with a massive head wound, and he was bleeding internally. He needed immediate help.
Nearby, Sgt. Ryan Meister also was severely injured. He had wounds to his shoulder, neck and upper body and a gaping hole in his thigh.
Harper, the most senior officer among them at the time, decided to move Neumer to a safe location. Though severely injured, Meister was better protected than Neumer, whose condition was worsening.
That's when Harper discovered that the medic, Staff Sgt. Casey Roberts, was bleeding from one of his eyes. Doctors later discovered that a piece of shrapnel narrowly missed Roberts' brain.
Three soldiers — Harper, Roberts and Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Ahern — began moving Neumer as bullets and mortar rounds pelted the earth around them.
Ahern, who operated the unit's 84 mm rocket launcher, was struck in the thigh and couldn't walk but was still in the fight. If he could get hold of rocket shells, he thought, they stood a better chance of repelling the attack.
It would be up to Harper to retrieve them. So he made a dash through gunfire and brought them back.
Harper said he was on the radio the entire time asking for backup air support and medic helicopters, which were more than an hour away. Somehow, Harper said, he was able to get the shells without getting hit again.
Armed with fresh ammunition, Ahern began firing his rocket launcher. Harper fired his HK-416, a special forces version of the M-4 rifle. The firefight lasted an hour before backup arrived.
Harper watched as the four other soldiers were loaded onto a helicopter. Harper, whose shoulder still ached from the shrapnel, stayed back with the troops.
The rest of the unit, including Harper, got back out to safety and to the military hospital about eight hours later. All five men were later flown to Germany and subsequently back home.
Harper's shoulder was infected, though he was cleared for action seven months later. Neumer continues to have surgeries, but is out of the hospital. The remaining soldiers have healed. Harper said Roberts, miraculously, did not lose his sight.
Harper has been in the military since 2001. He lives for his military service and has been deployed most of the last decade on missions overseas.
"This is what I love to do," he said.
The French Cross of Military Valor, one of the most respected decorations issued by France, was given to the soldiers during a private ceremony at French ambassador François Delattre's residence.
"Through their outstanding bravery and engagement in combat, they fought at the risk of their own lives to assist French soldiers, their brothers in arms, who experienced a barrage of fire from the enemy," Delattre said, according to a Department of Defense press release.
The event was attended by many high-ranking officers, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is the Army chief of staff and a nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He talked about the importance of the National Guard.
"The last three award ceremonies I've been to happen to have been National Guard soldiers," he said in a Department of Defense press release. "We're really one Army."
Harper, 27, said the government flew his family — father Wayne Harper, mother Debbie and sisters Chrissy and Lauren — to the ceremony.
"It's a huge honor for all of us," Harper said after the event. "They're completely overwhelmed. We don't normally look for this kind of recognition."
Harper said he was just glad the unit came out alive.
"We had kind of a tough fight those last few days in Afghanistan," Harper said in a press release. "We were just happy to be alive. We really didn't expect this kind of honor. It's pretty overwhelming, I'll tell you."
Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JoeOcalaNews.