FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — A Brazilian-born Army sergeant credited with saving two lives during an attack in Afghanistan while wounded has been presented with the nation's second highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno presented the medal to Sgt. Felipe Pereira (PUR-air-rah) of the 101st Airborne Division during a ceremony Thursday at the installation on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line.
Pereira is the first soldier from the famed 101st Airborne Division since Vietnam to receive the honor. He is assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Born in Brasilia, he moved to America at the age of 17 to learn English at a Nebraska college. He earned a degree in biology and was working as a martial arts instructor when he decided to join the Army. In 2010, he became a dual citizen of Brazil and the United States.
He said he never expected his life to take the path it has — from an immigrant who knew only a few phrases of English to being decorated with such a medal. His parents flew from Brazil to see him receive the medal.
"I don't think it fazed me until today when I stood here and heard the general talking about me," he told reporters after the ceremony. "I think it's just a great, great honor to represent the 101st Division and the caliber of the fighting forces we have here."
Pereira described the November 1, 2010, attack in Kandahar province when he was injured by a suicide bomber and two other soldiers were killed. Despite shrapnel wounds to his lung, he jumped on an all-terrain vehicle to rescue two wounded soldiers who were pinned down by enemy fire.
Pereira said the attack started with a suicide bomber on a motorcycle who rode up to the squad as they were patrolling on foot.
"The explosion propelled me up and I was laying on the ground and it was time to make a choice. Are you going to sit down and ask for help, or are you actually going to get up and do something? I will tell you I didn't think about anything else besides, 'Am I capable of fighting? Yes, I am,'" he said.
He grabbed an all-terrain vehicle, which he described as "an oversized golf cart," and drove to where wounded soldiers were pinned down by enemy fire. He returned fire as bullets ricocheted off the vehicle and barely missed him. Using the vehicle, he brought the injured soldiers to medics and helped get others out of danger.
Only after everyone was safe did he acknowledge his injuries, which included a collapsed lung, and shrapnel wounds to his spleen and liver.
He said the soldiers joked about using the small all-terrain vehicle that offers very little protection and is mostly for getting around the base.
"We always used to say, 'How awesome would it be to put a machine gun on the back that little cart?'" he said laughing.
But he said getting the medal was a solemn moment to remember the two soldiers that were killed in the attack, Pfc. Andrew Meari and Spc. Jonathan Curtis.
"The ultimate sacrifice to me is what defines a hero," he said. "That's why I keep saying I don't think I have done anything beyond my duty."
Odierno said while Pereira thinks he was only doing his duty and that his squad all fought together, he deserves the award.
"You were awarded this honor because you went above and beyond the call of duty, selflessly rescuing other soldiers before attending to your own injuries and wear it proudly knowing that this medal represents the thanks of a grateful nation," Odierno said during the ceremony.
Denise Meehan, whose son Andrew Meari was killed in the suicide bombing, said Pereira was one of the first soldiers from the unit to reach out to her personally.
"To me, it was only a matter of time until such recognition was granted him," she said.