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Springfield soldier Gann awarded Purple Heart in Afghanistan

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Springfield resident Jay D. Gann, a lieutenant colonel serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was awarded a Purple Heart Oct. 28 for injuries he received during a rocket attack in eastern Afghanistan Sept. 12.

Col. Alfred A. Pantano Jr. presented the award during a ceremony at the Corps of Engineers headquarters compound. About 200 military personnel and civilian workers attended the event at the Qalaa House compound in Kabul.

“I’m no one special. I’m just one of the ones who served,” said Gann, a member of the Missouri Army National Guard who is concluding a yearlong tour in Afghanistan.

At the time of the attack, Gann, 54, was the officer in charge of the Corps of Engineers’ field office at Forward Operating Base Shank, a small military encampment near the town of Gardez by the Pakistan border. Insurgents rocketed the base nearly daily. On that particular morning, Gann was in his living quarters, a converted metal cargo container like those on semi-trailer trucks. An alarm sounded signaling an imminent attack, so Gann dropped to the floor just before the rocket struck. Shrapnel and a shock wave ripped through a cluster of cargo containers.

The blast from the rocket, which is larger than a baseball bat, hurled Gann across the floor of his unit and toppled a lamp, books and other equipment on him. He was knocked unconscious for a few minutes.

“I just remember the initial blast, the noise,” he said.

After a few minutes, he awoke when other military personnel banged on his door. He doesn’t remember the banging, only the realization that his living quarters was covered in dirt and debris, and smoke hung in the air. Despite his own injury, he led the others to an adjacent cargo container, which was even more damaged. They kicked in the door to discover that the occupant had gone on an early morning jog and missed the attack.

“Luckily, he wasn’t there,” Gann said.

Gann initially suffered from headaches, ringing in his ears, loss of balance, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound, which all are common symptoms of close proximity to explosions. He was treated at the medical facility at Shank and resumed work nearly immediately.

“You get hit and you just shake it off and go on,” he said. “I didn’t think about it. I had a job to do.”

Gann ran the Corps of Engineers’ operation at the base and oversaw security for civilian personnel who direct a multimillion-dollar construction program to build military installations and police stations for Afghan forces. The construction effort is vital to the planned withdrawal of most coalition military troops by the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are scheduled to take the lead in the fight against insurgents.

Military leaders considered sending him home early because he had suffered multiple concussions, but he asked to remain to assist with the transition to his regularly scheduled successor a few weeks later. Instead of sending him home, leaders instructed him to seek further evaluations by a specialist at Bagram Air Field, a large U.S. and coalition base north of Kabul.

While the symptoms have dissipated, he still suffers from ringing in his ears and difficulty with balance, particularly at night when his visual acuity is lessened. The effects are manageable and he expects them to lessen further in coming weeks and months, he said.

The award marked Gann’s second Purple Heart. He was awarded his first for a concussion and injuries to his back and shoulder when an armored vehicle he was traveling in was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq years earlier.

In addition to those incidents, Gann suffered a concussion and an ankle injury during a rocket attack at Shank on July 13. At the time, he was in the open moving between buildings to check on Corps of Engineers employees after a rocket struck several hundred yards away. As he was walking across a gravel courtyard, a second rocket hit about 50 yards from him. He was not awarded a Purple Heart for that incident.

While presenting the award to Gann Oct. 27, Pantano noted that the medal bears the profile of George Washington, one of America’s greatest military and political leaders. The association with the Revolutionary War icon lends prestige to the award itself, Pantano said.

The criteria concerning who can wear the medal are strict, he said. Simply being injured, no matter how severe an injury, is not enough.

“To receive the award, it has to be the result of enemy action,” said Pantano, the commanding officer of the Corps of Engineers in northern Afghanistan.

Pantano also awarded him the Bronze Star Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the NATO Medal. The Corps of Engineers is the lead organization rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure in preparation for transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2014. The Corps of Engineers operates two districts in Afghanistan – Transatlantic District-North, which is based in Kabul; and Transatlantic District-South, which is based in Kandahar. The office at Shank has since been relocated to a less risky location.

Gann’s home unit is the Guard’s 35th Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, but he has been mobilized nearly full time since the mid-2000s. He’s looking forward to returning to reserve status when he returns to Missouri and his wife Robin in a matter of weeks.

“I’d rather be back home for a while,” he said.

In his civilian capacity, Gann works as a distribution manager for Associated Wholesale Grocers in Springfield. The retailer-owned cooperative delivers food products to more than 2,500 retail outlets in 24 states. Gann grew up nearby in Buffalo, Mo.

Article by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Afghanistan Engineer District North