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Florida National Guardsman gets Purple Heart 5 years in the making

After receiving his Purple Heart, Florida National Guardsman Ernie Rivera, right, hugs Jefferson Werts, his staff sergeant in Iraq. Werts, who was also honored Friday, said he would never have gotten his medal without Rivera’s work on his behalf.

Photos by WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

After receiving his Purple Heart, Florida National Guardsman Ernie Rivera, right, hugs Jefferson Werts, his staff sergeant in Iraq. Werts, who was also honored Friday, said he would never have gotten his medal without Rivera’s work on his behalf.

ORLANDO — Ernie Rivera came to give the unvarnished truth to leaders of the Florida National Guard. Someone later asked if that made him nervous.

"I don't care about those guys," the former Florida Guard sergeant and platoon leader said of officers who were once his commanders. "They've never been in a firefight. I'm not afraid of them."

They had come Friday to honor Rivera with a Purple Heart — awarded after five years of red tape and frustration. Men in Rivera's platoon have faced similar delays to obtain other decorations, he said.

"As civilians we go home, we don't go back to our unit. We have to integrate back into being police officers or schoolteachers," Rivera told a small crowd at a Florida Guard armory in Orlando. "We don't have the same support" as regular Army troops.

"Let's take care of the guys," Rivera urged the assembled Florida Guard brass.

Rivera, 42, a medically retired member of a Florida Guard unit with its headquarters in Pinellas Park, suffered multiple wounds and injuries during a deployment in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He suffered traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb. The Orlando-area resident was treated at Tampa's Haley VA Medical Center polytrauma unit in 2007.

Traumatic brain injury, often called the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an invisible wound that doctors say can be as damaging to the body as a bullet or shrapnel.

Until April 2011, when the Army changed its policy on Purple Hearts, it was often difficult for soldiers to get the medal for traumatic brain injuries. TBI's telltale signs can be hard to detect. Rivera was repeatedly turned down for the award.

While Rivera said the Army is partially responsible for the delay in him getting the medal, he said after the ceremony that he thinks Florida Guard leaders can be more aggressive taking care of the stateside needs of their troops. He acknowledged the Guard has improved but said it can do better.

That's the message he gave Maj. Gen. Don Tyre, assistant adjutant general of the Florida Army National Guard, in a conversation after the ceremony.

Jefferson Werts, who served in Iraq as a squad leader in the platoon Rivera led, retired from the Guard three years ago. At Friday's ceremony, he received a meritorious service medal marking high achievement during his 22 years in the service.

"They want dedication for their troops," Werts said of Guard leaders. "But that works both ways. I've got to respect Ernie for standing up for us."

Tyre, who pinned the Purple Heart next to a U.S. flag pin on Rivera's chest, said he understood Rivera's frustration. As for Rivera's Purple Heart, Tyre said, it was Army policy that delayed things, not the Florida Guard.

Tyre said it can be challenging to provide Guard troops with a seamless transition back into the civilian world, lining up medical care, financial support and other services. He said the Florida Guard has limited staff compared with the Army but has made great strides since 9/11.

"It can sometimes be difficult to get around to everyone in a timely manner," he said. "But as I told Ernie, if we're anything, it's tenacious."

A roadside bomb in 2006 lifted a truck Rivera was riding in off the ground. At first, Rivera thought he had escaped injury. But in the weeks that followed, he suffered vertigo, headaches, muscle weakness and problems with cognition and memory loss. Rivera refused to leave his men, taking nothing but aspirin.

The traumatic brain injury, Rivera said, was aggravated by a second explosion more than a month later. Rivera was finally forced to leave Iraq for medical attention. Back in the United States, Rivera discovered he also had a crack in a vertebra. Today, Rivera is 100 percent disabled.

He said he may not carry the colors for his country any longer but will remain diligent for those who still serve.

"This ceremony isn't about me," he said. "It's about my men."

Florida National Guardsman gets Purple Heart 5 years in the making 02/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 12:07am]
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