MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII, Kaneohe Bay - The weather was fair and sunny outside of Hangar 102 as Staff Sgt. Andrew “Petey” Peterson, a CH-53D Sea Stallion crew chief and maintenance controller for Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 362, was awarded the Purple Heart Medal during a formation, Sept. 24.
The 30-year-old native of Columbia, S.C., was shot in the back by a 7.62-mm round while conducting an extraction raid in southern Helmand province in Afghanistan, March 20.
Members of Peterson’s family were also present to see the formation and honor him with the award.
Peterson deployed with the Ugly Angels in Afghanistan earlier this year. This was his third overall deployment in his 12 years serving in
the Marine Corps. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Peterson joined what he considered to be the toughest service.
On March 20, the Ugly Angels received a call to retrieve a group of Marines from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. The Marines were fighting narcotics traffickers and members of the Taliban, and needed to be “extracted” from the area. One of them was injured and had already been medically evacuated before the Ugly Angels arrived.
According to Maj. Dan Rubel, a section leader for HMH-362, the Marines from 2nd Bn., 9th Marines were situated in a compound with houses, which made it difficult for the helicopter to land safely. Rubel was one of the pilots flying the CH-53D during the incident. The Marines only laid suppressive fire to avoid the potential loss of civilian lives.
Cpls. Chan Lathung and Britt Churchill were the gunners in the helicopter during the incident. Churchill, a 24-year-old native of Perry, Fla., was an aerial observer with HMH-362.
Peterson said when he was shot in the back, he was pushed forward into his 50-caliber machine gun, and fell to the ground. Mere seconds later, Peterson had stood back up and run to Churchill’s side of the
aircraft, manning Churchill’s machine gun.
“He was actually firing his M16 at the enemy at the time,” Peterson said. “So I went over (to use his machine gun) and started looking for enemy to engage.”
When Lathung had accounted for all the Marines coming aboard the aircraft, the CH-53D left the area. A corpsman aboard the aircraft tended to Peterson’s wound.
“He didn’t panic, he didn’t lose his cool,” Lathung said.
Lathung said Peterson’s and the pilots’ ability to stay calm in an emergency situation is “a testament to their experience.”
Peterson spent time in the hospital at Camp Leatherneck, then was transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. After three weeks, he returned to Afghanistan and resumed his primary duties as a maintenance controller. It would be three months before he would be able to fly again.
Rubel said it would have been understandable if Peterson had chosen not to fly after the incident, because of how dangerous it can be to provide the flight support they did. On his first flight since the injury, Peterson took the aircraft around the base, though he described himself as on-edge and nervous.
“The medal is well-deserved,” Rubel said. “It was very significant that ‘Petey’ got in the helicopter and flew again.”
Today, Peterson is fully recovered, flying once again and plans to stay
in the Marine Corps until retirement.
In his every day life as a Marine, his colleagues have nothing but praise for him. Churchill described Peterson as “firm and fair,” and a teacher to his fellow Marines.
“He teaches the young Marines a lot,” Lathung said. “He doesn’t hold that experience. He’s very giving.”
Oliver shared words of praise for Peterson’s ability to continue serving in Afghanistan and flying once again despite his injury.
“I’m sure everyone of you that would have had the opportunity would have done the exact same thing that I would have done,” Peterson said to his fellow Marines.
“If you’re ever wondering what true bravery is, it’s not that crap you see in the movies,” said Lt. Col. Christopher H. Oliver, HMH-362’s commanding officer. “True bravery is real people, real Marines doing real things, in support of other Marines. Staff Sgt. Peterson embodies the kind of bravery that I would hope that all of us would exemplify … we know that he’s faced that challenge and gone back in. I’d hope I’d do the same.”