Photo Information

– Cpl. John P. Kopek (left), an infantryman who served as part of a military transition team in Ramadi, Iraq, meets Petty Officer 1st class Vincent Soto, a corpsman with 2nd Marine Division, at the first ever American Hero of the Year Awards at Sywanyks Scarlet & Gold Traditions nightclub, April 11. Soto and Kopek were two of the five service members selected from all East Coast operational commands. Kopek, 22, was the youngest honoree, and Soto was the only sailor.

Photo by Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich

5 heroes recognized by Jacksonville, N.C., community, military leaders

15 Apr 2008 | Cpl. Ryan M. Blaich

Five generals and more than one hundred military and civilian guests were on hand to witness the first ever American Hero of the Year Awards held at Sywanyks Scarlet & Gold Traditions nightclub, April 11. Four Marines and a Navy corpsman were selected from all East Coast operational commands for heroic actions.

Their personal qualities set them apart in a military full of brave men and women, said Ihor Sywanyk, the owner. This marked the first time five general officers were present at the same time inside the historic nightclub, known simply as Sywanyks.

Sywanyk, a former Marine sergeant major, has turned this modest building into a sort of shrine, full of Marine Corps and Navy memorabilia. On any given night, the club is filled with men and women from yesterday’s wars. Two men who had served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam attended the ceremony. It seemed this place bled heroism, honor and love for country.

Before the event, like always, a local singing group, the “Classix,” sang the service song for each branch of the military, and finished with the National Anthem. Marines, sailors, retirees, spouses, businessmen and elected officials stood silently around their tables, all united in patriotism.

The five being honored that night sat at a table like any other, near the front stage. Each of them appeared humble in their own right, but also proud to be representing their unit, their colleagues or, in one case, their spouse. 

Sergeant Maj. R.D. Himsworth, II Marine Expeditionary Force sergeant major, was the master of ceremonies. As he read each citation, Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, II MEF commanding general, shook the recipients’ hands and presented them with a plaque for heroism.

First, there was Cpl. John P. Kopek. At 22, he was the youngest honoree. But, it was immediately apparent that his youthful appearance concealed his mature mindset and natural leadership.

Kopek, an infantryman from Fayetteville, Ark., recently returned from his first tour of duty. He was stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, for more than six months as a member of a military transition team.

Prior to deploying in Sept. 2007, he was chosen by his company commander to be a part of a select group of Marines who would mentor and establish an Iraqi fighting force capable of defeating the insurgency in the provincial capital of al Anbar. Kopek was asked to be the primary advisor for the company commander of Company 2, 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division. As a lance corporal, he also worked closely with the company’s first sergeant, learning how to properly do his job.

While deployed, Marines like Kopek worked closely with the Iraqi Army to create a safe environment for the people of Ramadi. For his actions and dedication, Kopek was nominated for the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

Sitting across from Kopek was the table’s lone sailor, Petty Officer 1st Class Vincent Soto.

Soto is a corpsman for 2nd Marine Division. He, too, has recently returned from Iraq, where he was stationed for more than 12 months in Fallujah.  

While deployed as part of the command element for Multi-National Force – West, he provided guidance to more than 5,000 Navy personnel and supported more than 30,000 service members. He also established the use of the Joint Patient Tracking System, which greatly increased the ability to track more than 1,700 MNF-W casualties.

Himsworth closed by saying it was important to understand the magnitude of Soto’s actions. His ability to track all those wounded saved lives, and without his tireless efforts, a lot more service members would have been lost. Himsworth also said Soto’s actions were symbolic of the Navy, Marine Corps team.

Soto was also recently awarded the Marine Forces Command Sailor of the Year for 2007.

To the left of Soto sat the evening’s Freedom’s Flight Award winner. Master Sgt. James Crawford stood steadfast as Stalder presented him with a large trophy of a Bald Eagle and American Flag, naming him the 2008 American Hero of the Year.

As a member of Marine Special Operations Command, Crawford saw his fair share of combat while deployed.

When his observation post came under attack by rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire, several of his Marines were hit and seriously injured. Crawford continually exposed himself to the insurgents’ gunfire throughout the battle. Running to the rooftop, he rendered life-saving first aid until medical care arrived. He later maneuvered himself to better engage the enemy.

His heroic actions saved the lives of several team members that day. For this, Crawford was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with combat distinguishing device.

The two remaining attendees represented not themselves, but two brave men who were unable to attend.

First Sgt. Jack J. Pettis, attended on behalf of a deployed Marine, Sgt. Danny S. Santos.

Like Crawford, Santos, 24, is also a member of MARSOC. He is currently deployed to West Africa as the Weapons Element leader.

While deployed as a member of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Santos was with the lead element when his squad was suddenly attacked by insurgents. From inside the surrounding houses, the enemy attacked his small team with an intense barrage of automatic machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

Despite being wounded in both the shoulder and stomach, Santos continued to lead his squad against the enemy’s stronghold and fortified positions. When he realized his point man lay wounded in the middle of the street, he disregarded his own safety and exposed himself to enemy fire in order to destroy the enemy’s position with an anti-tank weapon. After getting his comrade to safety, he refused treatment for his wounds until all of his men were properly treated.

For his heroic actions in the face of danger, Santos was awarded the nation’s third highest honor for valor, the Silver Star.

Lastly, there sat a lady, a civilian who was seemingly hidden in the shadows at the far right corner of the table. Mrs. Debbie Wert was here to honor her husband, Master Sgt. Michael Wert. Most of those in attendance knew his story.

He was the Marine who, while on vacation with his family, gave his life saving two children in the Atlantic Ocean.

As a storm system off the East Coast was pushing big waves onto the shore of Atlantic Beach, N.C., Wert and his wife noticed two children distressed in the water. Without thought of his own safety, Wert dove in to rescue the children who were being carried out to sea, and Debbie called 911. Wert’s young daughter heroically followed her father with a boogie board to assist in the rescue, but by the time she reached the two children, her father was nowhere to be found. He had let go and fallen beneath the water.

Paramedics arrived soon thereafter and found his body, but were unable to revive him. Wert was the intelligence specialist chief for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and is survived by his wife, Debbie, and two children. He was six days shy of his 36th birthday.

Just as Himsworth ended the citation of Wert’s actions, the crowd stood to applaud. Mrs. Wert accepted the plaque from Stalder, as tears streamed down her cheeks.

It seemed difficult to pick out all the heroes in Sywanyks that night. At every table sat someone with a story. The walls told the tales of yesterday, and the tables were etched in history. This night seemed to not only recognize these five individuals, but all heroes whose stories will remain untold.

“There are a lot of people that serve our country, sometimes in conflicts and battles, and do not get recognized for their heroics,” said Sywanyk. “That’s just the way it is. But tonight, the base has picked five individuals that deserve to be recognized. They’re the best of the best.”