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Veterinary nurse honored for heroism in Iraq War
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Shandon Gifford feels honored to receive the Soldier's Medal for his heroic actions in the Iraq War, but he said the support he received during and after his service is more valuable than any award.
Gifford, who served as a medic in Iraq with the Mississippi National Guard's 223rd Engineering Battalion in 2003, is a surgical nurse with Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He was honored with the U.S. Army's Soldier's Medal during a special ceremony held at Camp McCain near Grenada July 15.
“Since I got back from Iraq and since I got this award, people at the vet school have been thanking me for my service and congratulating me on my award. During my deployment, I got to come home for two weeks around Christmas, and the people here at the vet school were so good to me during that time,” Gifford said. “I haven't gotten the opportunity to thank everyone for their concern. It means so much to me.”
Gifford said his friends and co-workers at the veterinary college also supported and encouraged his family, with calls to his wife to ask if they could help her in any way.
Gifford received the award for his actions during about one hour on May 7, 2003. Explosions were a normal part of daily life in Iraq, but Gifford said the explosion that day was “too close for comfort.” After hearing mention of a casualty over the radio, Gifford and Lt. John Paul went out to assess the situation.
U.S. soldiers had been using bulldozers to clear a known minefield, so Gifford originally suspected one of the mines inadvertently had been detonated. But what Gifford and his lieutenant found was much more sinister: they believe two men intentionally set fire to the minefield, causing mortar rounds and land mines to start exploding.
“We got out there and Lt. Paul said, ‘You know this is a minefield. You don't have to go out there.' But I knew he wouldn't be able to treat injuries and drive the ambulance by himself,” Gifford said. “He offered three times to let me stay -- reminding me that I had a wife and children back at home to think about -- but I refused and said I was going to do my job.”
Under heavy fire, Gifford and Paul finally discovered a Bradley fighting vehicle that had been hit by a mortar round.
“The tank commander of that vehicle was coming up through his TC (tank commander) hatch when the round hit his vehicle and knocked the periscope completely off. Luckily the round didn't explode when it hit the vehicle -- it blew up beside the vehicle -- but the periscope hit the tank commander in the head,” Gifford said. “We treated the casualty and took the wounded man back to the aid station to reevaluate him and confirm he was not seriously injured.”
Paul nominated Gifford for the Soldier's Medal the next month. This award is given to soldiers who risk their own lives to save the life of another soldier. Usually during war time, Gifford's actions would have earned him a Bronze Star with a V device for valor. But because enemy action couldn't be proven on that chaotic day, Gifford was eligible for the Soldier's Medal.
“The men we believe set fire to the minefield jumped back into their vehicle when we went out to investigate,” Gifford said. “Our Humvees couldn't catch up to this vehicle, so we weren't able to catch the saboteurs. As a result, enemy action could not be proven.”
Paul's nomination documents emphasize the heroism of Gifford's actions.
“While rushing through a hail of rocket fire and exploding ordnance, Sgt. Gifford narrowly missed being hit several times, but continued forward without hesitation or thoughts of his own safety,” Paul wrote. “With no way to suppress the incoming fire, he pressed on through multiple explosions until he was able to reach and evacuate the wounded soldier.”
Gifford insisted he was simply doing the job he was trained to do. He said any soldier in a similar situation would take the same risk.
“Lt. Paul was a good officer and he taught me a lot. I consider him a friend, and I knew one person couldn't do this job alone,” Gifford said. “You try not to think about it being a dangerous situation and try to focus on the wounded soldier out there. I'm the one who's been trained to help him. If not me, who's going to do it? I just focused on that and did the best job I could.”
Gifford's award makes him the most decorated soldier from Mississippi in the Iraq War. He served in the National Guard for 12 years and was activated, though he never went overseas, during the first Gulf War.
“I joined in '89 when a friend tricked me into stopping by the Army recruiting unit. He said he had to talk to somebody and asked me to come in with him. We walked straight into the recruiter's office, and they started working on me,” he said. “I believe the decision to enlist was the first adult decision I made in my life.”
After basic training, Gifford took advanced individual training and became a medical specialist. That training qualified him to be an Emergency Medical Technician, which got him interested in nursing. Gifford then attended East Mississippi Community College and became a Licensed Practical Nurse in 1991.
Gifford joined the CVM staff in 1998 as a surgical nurse in the Animal Health Center. His five-year pin for working at the CVM was waiting on his desk when he got back from Iraq, and two years later, he's still wearing it proudly on his lab coat.
Gifford is married to Elaine, and they have two daughters, Amber, 12, and Tori, 8. They live in Starkville.
Contact: Dr. Wayne Groce, (662)325-1134