News: Three 98th Civil Affairs Battalion soldiers receive Purple Heart awards
Story by Leslie Ozawa
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Capt. Shawn Jokinen, Sgt. 1st Class Juan C. Cando and Staff Sgt. Arnulfo Benitez of 98th Civil Affairs Battalion receive Purple Heart medals for wounds received in improvised explosive device attack while on a Civil Affairs team on a humanitarian assistance visit to a small village in Khowst Province near Afghanistan’s eastern border, Jan. 3, 2012
“It wasn’t too long ago that I, as a new commander, received a phone call that made my heart sink: one that I hope never to receive again; one that informed me that three of my soldiers had been caught in an IED blast; and one that thankfully let me know that they would soon recover,” said Lt. Col. Brian Horine, 98th Civil Affairs Battalion commander.
The three soldiers, Capt. Shawn Jokinen, Sgt. 1st Class Juan C. Cando and Staff Sgt. Arnulfo Benitez were at the Kennedy Hall stage, Aug. 15, where Horine had just pinned on their Purple Heart medals.
Horine said the three awardees were on a Civil Affairs team on a humanitarian assistance visit to a small village in Khowst Province near Afghanistan’s eastern border when a roadside bomb exploded under their vehicle, Jan. 3, 2012.
In an interview earlier this month, Jokinen, the Civil Affairs team leader recalled, “We took some time off, but we had a job to do. …you have indirect fire coming into a forward operating base and might get hit in the chow hall. You just can’t stop yourself from doing those things [going out on missions]. You get scared, a little more tense, and you look a little harder, kind of recheck your thought processes when you go out, but I don’t think it stopped the job that we had to do. We did some 30-plus missions after that. We did eight and a half, nine months, and we were then about three months into it [their deployment].
On the day of the attack, Jokinen said that he, Cando and Benitez were in the lead vehicle of a small convoy that included a provincial reconstruction team. “It was an open road, civilians everywhere. We were traveling near open fields, small houses. The IED could have been set off by a cell phone or trip wires.”
Benitez, who was the turret gunner of the RG-31MRAP [mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle], said he first thought the vehicle had hit something, then he felt the blast and fell into the vehicle.
“To the best of my ability, I got back on the gun,” Benitez said. “I had a burning sensation in my face. We were trying to establish communication as we were driving through the blast….. We slowed down to figure out what happened. After a couple of seconds, we talked to people [behind us]. They heard something but didn’t know what it was.”
Cando, as the truck commander, was in the right front seat, taking the brunt of the explosion under him. “I don’t remember hitting it,” Cando said. “The first thing for me was like, trying to shake it off.”
The driver, a National Guardsman who also received a Purple Heart, steered to the side of the road and slowed down.
Jokinen said, “He [Cando] actually had a blast fragment, headaches, and was out for another week longer than Benitez and me.”
Jokinen, who received his first Purple Heart for an incident in Iraq in 2007, said, “This is the second big blast. I keep getting migraines. I have lost a bit of hearing in my right ear, but I’m back to being ‘mission capable.’
“They do a lot better job today in assessing and treating for concussions. Before, the criteria for an injury was like, you have to be knocked out, unconscious, have your eardrum perforated, in a pretty substantial blast. A lot of that [happens] in buildings, vehicles, the overpressure. You get shaken up pretty good, you get headaches. They do a better job now…they look at concussion differently.
“It’s funny. Our commander and first sergeant would, at times, come out on missions with us….First time they came out, a grenade was thrown. The next time, we get hit by an IED. The good part of having the commander and first sergeant with us is that we might say, ‘Hey we’re good,’ but they were very adamant about seeing medical personnel and taking the time to heal. ‘Just see them [doctors]. After the adrenaline goes away, you realize that you have been hurt. Now, it’s command-driven, how medical people approach it. The care for traumatic brain injury has vastly improved.”
Jokinen reflected on what he takes away from this experience. “I’m a religious person, so I think there is Someone watching out for me….the bad part is, you have to deal with your wife. This was the second one. And families get calls …. It’s tough, because it’s harder to explain, to go through this process. But I enjoy the job I do, enjoy being out there, being a Special Operations Civil Affairs operator. This comes with the territory.”
Cando’s wife being a soldier and also deployed to Afghanistan at that time, made it easier to for him to make the call. “I gave her a call and told her, you might get an email, a phone call. I’m okay, so don’t worry about it. Someone already called our family, so my mom, she was worried….
“A lot of stuff that has happened, firefights...a grenade gets thrown at us. When it happens it happens, but we were able to come back and actually be here talking to you, being able to be here at the award ceremony. I don’t think none of us wanted that. But at least we’re able to be there. Some people who get Purple Hearts don’t have legs, don’t have arms.”
Benitez, now assigned as an instructor at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, saw his experience as having another meaning.
“Being able to walk away from that accident, it helps to build better standard operating procedures later on, when we are on future teams,” Benitez said. “I will be able to share my experiences with the team, with my company, with anybody who has the need for this training. We train as we fight. Now we can get closer to a realistic scenario with an IED blast."
Jokinen ended the interview by saying, “Our time in that position is over with. These guys did two deployments in supporting our nation’s elite forces and now it’s time for them to share that, not just ‘move, shoot, communicate and survive’ but the mental aspect. That’s important. As the new team is training up, they’ll be there to share that experience. That’s the key. It’s great that we’re recognized, that we’re part of the 95th [Civil Affairs Brigade] tradition, but I don’t need another one [Purple Heart].”