EMU professor earns Purple Heart for service in Iraq
YPSILANTI – Some 20 bullets ricocheted throughout the ambushed Chevy Suburban hitting all three of its occupants. As pedestrians jumped out of its way, the non-armored vehicle rammed a barrier and went over the wall of 55-gal.drums.
The driver was hit in the neck, a reporter took a bullet in her back and Major Stephen Ward caught shrapnel in the right side of his face and right hand.
They all returned to work the same day.
That action was Jan. 19, 2004, in Mosul, Iraq. Almost one year later, Ward, Eastern Michigan University Eagle Battalion executive officer and assistant professor, Department of Military Science, received a Purple Heart Jan. 10 at University House. Major Clifford Buttram, EMU department head of military science, presented the medal.
The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the president of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces who has been wounded or killed.
“The Purple Heart is a sign of how lucky I was to survive that violent act and how fortunate I am to be an American. It’s a sign of thankfulness and a reminder of the many things we have as Americans such as freedom, many of the things we take for granted in every day life,” said Ward.
Ward, 37, a civil engineer for the Army Corp of Engineers, was in Iraq leading a team of civilian engineers known as the Forward Engineering Support Team (FEST). They were building a bridge between the cities of Irbil and Mosul.
He was in the lead of a three-vehicle convoy along with his driver and an embedded reporter traveling to the engineering site when the attack occurred.
“It was like a Hollywood movie. Our vehicle was going so fast, people on the street were scattering everywhere,” said Ward, who explained that during the escape the other two vehicles took only a few rounds. “They (the attackers) wanted to take out the lead vehicle.”
The first thing Ward did when he realized they were under attack, was throw the reporter to the floor. She was unaware that she had a bullet between her vest and back that barely penetrated the skin, but was very near her spine. A bullet had already gone through her camera, Ward said.
Next, I put a compress on the driver’s neck, said Ward. The vest took the bullet and the shrapnel exploded in the neck guard of the vest saving the driver from a serious head wound. As for himself, Ward said he didn’t know he was hit.
“The shrapnel was so hot I didn’t feel anything at the time. After, I had tiny pieces of metal coming out of my skin,” said Ward, who described how today there are hardly any telltale scars on his hand or face.
“At the time, I thought this (getting wounded) was no big deal. But as I had time to reflect and rewind the scenario, I realize how lucky I was to survive,” he said. “I knew that someone was looking out for me and that you can be gone in a moment. Life is so fragile.”
That encounter also has changed his view of everyday annoyances such as traffic. In Iraq, six lanes would go down to two and if he was trapped in between two vehicles, he would back up right over a vehicle to escape.
While at EMU, Ward will be leading a more sedate lifestyle. He is teaching “Introduction to Leadership Development” and is assistant head of the military science department.
His hometown is Bozeman, Mont., but Ward has been reassigned to EMU from the Army Corp or Engineers in Seattle, Wash.
He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Montana State University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Colorado.
Ward and his wife, Mercedes, live in Milan with their one-year -old daughter and three-year-old son.
“I’m thankful everyday for my wife and two kids. It’s wonderful coming home to them,” he said.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their careers and lives, and to be better citizens.
Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.
Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.