The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

July 31, 2013

VFW Eagle Award honors soldier's bravery in Iraq

By Karen Blackledge
The Danville News

DANVILLE — When Staff Sgt. Robert  Heckrote’s unit came under fire and two soldiers were wounded, he quickly moved his Humvee into the line of fire to prevent further injury and provide cover for others. Then he rushed to aid the injured.

Heckrote, 27, formerly of Danville, was honored by the Pennsylvania Department of Veterans of Foreign Wars for his heroic actions that saved lives during Operation Iraqi Freedom while putting his own life in danger.

The state VFW presented the Pennsylvania National Guard soldier with the prestigious Pennsylvania VFW Eagle Award during its recent convention in Lancaster attended by more than 500 VFW leaders and members.

This is the first time someone from Danville has received the award, begun three years ago, according to David A. Sandman, director of public affairs and communications for the state VFW. He said four Eagle Awards are presented each year — two each at major conferences. Two are honorary and two are nominated, such as in Heckrote’s case.

Heckrote, who moved from Danville to Hughesville a year ago, said he was informed of the award about six months ago.

He was recognized for an incident Aug. 23, 2005, where he said his unit was gathering information from local people working with the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police when a sniper opened fire. The attack escalated into an ambush.

“In the initial kick-off of the ambush, two individuals were shot,” said Heckrote, who escaped injury. “My squad leader ran to my truck across a parking lot similar to plaza we have and I drove the Humvee and parked it between the two individuals. I hopped out of the truck and started to perform first aid. While I was doing that, I was receiving machine gun fire. The Humvee was pretty shot up. It was pretty chaotic. Rounds were coming pretty close.”

One of the two injured soldiers, a Marines gunnery sergeant, survived. A sergeant first class was killed in action.

Heckrote joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 2003. He serves with B Company, 3rd Battalion 103rd Armor Regiment of Williamsport. In 2005, he was attached to A Company 3-172nd Armor from the 109th Infantry Mechanized Unit as part of the Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team fighting in Ramadi.

A specialist at the time, Heckrote was one of only two non-wounded American soldiers at the Aug. 23, 2005, scene for the first five minutes of the attack. Evacuation of the wounded was delayed until reinforcements arrived with Heckrote closely monitoring one of the wounded soldiers and treating him for shock while enroute to a medical facility, according to the VFW.

A native of Liberty on the Lycoming-Tioga counties border, Heckrote lived in Danville for a year while attending Bloomsburg University. The Bloomsburg University graduate is attending graduate school at BU where he is studying to be a primary and secondary school counselor. His graduate assistantship through the university is with veterans adviser Martin Lacoya.

Lacoya is working toward establishing the university as a student veteran friendly campus and assisting student veterans with their transition to academia, Heckrote said.

Heckrote has about four years left on his National Guard contract. When asked if he will stay in, he said, “I will figure that out when the time comes.”

The VFW department presents the Eagle Award to recognize Commonwealth residents for the significant impact they have had on military campaign success, leading troops, preserving the cause of freedom and enhancing veterans’ welfare. Recipients have gone above and beyond the call during their military service to uphold two pillars of the VFW mission: honoring troops and veterans, and selfless service.

“The Pennsylvania VFW does not present its VFW Eagle only to battlefield heroes, but if we did, Staff Sgt. Heckrote’s name would be right at the top of the list,” said then VFW State Commander Ruth Fairchild during the presentation. “Specialist Heckrote demonstrated heroic actions in his quick and selfless reaction to a heavy enemy attack. He put his own life in danger while saving two fallen soldiers and fighting off a determined enemy. He is an American patriot, a battlefield hero, a fellow combat veteran and comrade in the VFW, and we thank him for his honorable service.”

According to the VFW, Heckrote continued to serve with honor and distinction during his Operation Enduring Freedom deployment in 2007-2008 in Afghanistan. He also demonstrated his commitment to serving with excellence during state active duty during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.

His military medals and decorations include the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Expert Marksman Badge for the M-4 rifle.

Email comments to kblackledge@thedanvillenews.com.