ROCK HILL, SC — Staff Sgt. Jesse Gladney saved his men in Iraq on Nov. 11, 2003.
His devotion to six others as young as 20 – pushing his men to safety before saving himself as mortars rained down on his squad – cost him part of his hearing and left him with a punctured eardrum, nosebleeds, a severe concussion and traumatic brain injury.
On Saturday, more than a decade after that attack, Uncle Sam finally recognized his act.
In a ceremony at the Rock Hill National Guard Armory, a Purple Heart – the medal awarded to soldiers wounded in combat – was pinned to Gladney’s chest.
The 45-year-old husband and father of five, retired after 20 years of National Guard service, stood tall and proud amid an ovation from his family, previous Purple Heart recipients, and two companies of the Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineer Battalion. Gladney was with the same unit – then called the 122nd – when it deployed to Iraq in 2003. The 300-soldier unit includes 15 Purple Heart recipients.
On Saturday, Gladney made 16.
“It just slipped through the cracks before,” Gladney said. “But now I have it, and I am thankful.”
Gladney is too humble to talk much about the night he was wounded, saying simply that he was “doing my job and duty.” His squad was near a bridge that had to be guarded.
Gladney’s children – daughters Kenyetta, Blessing and Miracle; sons Jesse and O’Brien – were replaced during the war by a squad of six young soldiers who Gladney had resolved would not be hurt in Iraq.
“We were going to do a raid on the town that night when the attack happened,” Gladney said. “I had to get the guys off the truck.”
The blast knocked Gladney on his back and could have killed him.
Another now-retired soldier on that deployment a decade ago, Sgt. Sherice McClain of York, was in the truck that night near the Euphrates River. Gladney, his immediate sergeant, is one reason McClain came home.
“We were down in this valley, and the mortar rounds came down on us,” McClain said. “Sgt. Gladney, he got everybody out of that truck and then a mortar hit on the driver side bumper, and he got the brunt of it. He had blood coming out of his ears, and he was hurt – but he was worried more about the other soldiers.
“He was a great soldier, a great sergeant – a leader.”
For so long, official acknowledgment of that injury didn’t come. Gladney came home and helped his wife, Tonjia, fight breast cancer. He worked at his civilian job at a Chester plant and never complained as his ears rang and he put a tissue to his nose to stop the nosebleed.
The medal, which came with a citation signed by the president of the United States, provides more benefits for Gladney and his family. Harrison Davis, with the organization Military Order of the Purple Heart, said Gladney had been “overlooked.” Gladney’s paperwork for the award was lost in the shuffle of returning veterans when the unit returned home, and he had to go through the red tape of getting his injuries redocumented and validated.
“Sgt. Gladney endured a traumatic brain injury, and this finally acknowledges what he gave to his country,” Davis said of the Purple Heart. “He should have had it a long time ago.”
Several soldiers in the unit, including the top enlisted man, Command Sgt. Major Joe Medlin, served with Gladney during that 2003-2004 tour in Iraq.
“Sgt. Gladney has deserved this for 10 years, and finally he has received it,” Medlin said.
Lt. Col. Kevin Berry, the 178th’s commanding officer, told the current soldiers in the unit that all should be proud of a warrior and soldier such as Gladney.
“He persisted,” Berry said. “This is a huge day for him.”
Gladney’s family had seats of honor near other Purple Heart recipients who were there. Gladney’s mother, Velma Burris, put it simply: “I am so proud of Jesse. We are all so proud of him.”
His children and sister and so many others surrounded him and took pictures with that medal pinned to his chest.
“It took 10 years, but it was worth it,” Gladney said.
Staff Sgt. Jesse Gladney then smiled as that Purple Heart shone over the huge heart beating beneath his uniform.