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The NCAA Award of Valor

In 1974 the NCAA instituted an award to honor a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter-winner at an NCAA institution who took courageous action at the risk of personal harm. For a member of the armed forces confronted with a duty-connected situation to be eligible for the Award of Valor, the action must be clearly above and beyond the call of duty and so recognized by the appropriate military command.

The award is not an annual award. Including its original three awardees, it has only been awarded fifteen times since its inception almost forty years ago.

One of the awardees was West Point hockey player and assistant team captain Derek Hines from the class of 2003 who was killed during an exchange of point blank gunfire with an enemy combatant who was shooting his troops. Hines killed the enemy as the enemy killed him.

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This, however, isn’t about the heroics of a West Point hockey player who became an infantry officer. This is about the other NCAA Award of Valor recipient from West Point and the first woman to ever receive it, a sprinter and four year letter winner on the track team by the name of Emily J T Perez.

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She was an Army brat born in Heidelberg, Germany, the daughter of an African-American mother and Hispanic father. She spent the bulk of her youth there. She loved books and learning. Her dad says that he had to read two books with her each night before bed. By the age of three she was doing her own reading. The family caught on that she was out of the ordinary when she began reciting parts of the sermons she heard each week at the Sunday church services that she loved. She attended Department of Defense schools in Mannheim and Heidelberg. In the second grade she was identified as a gifted student and her schooling became more challenging and demanding. She met and exceeded those challenges and demands, something that was to mark her entire life.

By the time her dad left the military and brought the family back to the States in her sophomore year in 1998, Emily had also been identified as a talented sprinter. As a freshman she had taken second place in the European Championships in the 100 meters. She had also been one of the youngest members of the Model UN and had been to Russia and the Netherlands in that capacity. She also played 1st clarinet in the high school band. Yep, she was that kind of kid.

In the States she continued her academic brilliance and track stardom, captaining the track team and placing near the top of her class academically. She started an HIV-AIDS ministry at her church and won an award from the American Red Cross for her HIV-AIDS peer counseling efforts at the Alexandria, Va., Red Cross Chapter. One of her high school classmates, a recent vintage PhD, cited Emily in her doctoral thesis as one of the smartest people she has ever known. In correspondence, she wrote about the manner in which Emily would tear apart and solve physics problems that was like no one else. She also remarked about how hard Emily worked on anything she did. That example of drive and determination helped her keep going when that PhD wasn’t looking any closer.

Emily went to a conference at West Point between her junior and senior years, one of 400 academically gifted young people from across the country to attend. Her dad says she went because she thought it would look good on her resume, not because she wanted to be in the military. When she came back she wanted to go to West Point. She had spent a week there at the conference, living the life of a cadet and she had loved it – the beauty and setting of the campus, the faculty, the cadets and how they looked out for each other, and the physical and mental challenge of getting through the toughest four years any college or university can place in front of a student.

In 2001, 2176 women applied to West Point. 612 received nominations. 333 were deemed as qualified and 192 were admitted. In late June 2001, Emily went to West Point, took the oath as one of those 192 and, along with 997 men, became a member of what will forever be known at West Point as the Class of 911. Their first academic semester had barely begun when the Twin Towers came down and that new class realized what was in their future. She had a chance to back out two years later, as does every cadet, but she never wavered.

Four years later she graduated with a degree in Sociology and was commissioned as a 2nd LT in the Army Medical Service Corps.

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Her record at West Point:

Honor roll her entire time there.

She lettered in track all four years. Eight years after her graduation she still appears on the all-time lists at West Point in the 4x100 relay as a member of the team holding the number 1, 3, and 4 fastest times ever at the Academy. She is also tied for 10th in the triple jump, an event she never tried until her junior year when Army needed points to beat Navy. She scored points for Army and they beat Navy. Eleven years after the race in 2002, she remains at number 2 all time in the 60 meter dash. For a year or so, she was number 1.

She was a tutor in the STARS program, spending many hours helping cadets having academic problems.

She was a founding member of a dance team that performed at halftimes of football and basketball games.

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Emily, in jersey #82, pumping up the Corps at halftime of an Oct, 2004 game.

She was a member of the Cadet Gospel Choir all four years and eventually was its director.

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Emily with her beloved Cadet Gospel Choir before a December 2004 performance in Philadephia.

She was Sergeant Major of Beast Barracks (cadet basic training) in 2003. She was Sergeant Major of her Battalion, then Sergeant Major of her Regiment and in her final year she was the Command Sergeant Major of the Brigade of Cadets, making her the highest ranking female in the class of 911, the second highest ranking cadet in the class and the highest ranking minority female in the history of West Point. With all those diversions, she graduated in the top 10% of the class academically. Not a bad record for a 5’4" 110 pound minority female in a world dominated by thousands of would be male warriors.

So Emily left West Point to lead a platoon of medical service corps soldiers that was deploying shortly to Iraq. Before leaving she found time to fly across the country to be a bone marrow donor for someone who was a match. And then in late 2005, it was off to Iraq with C Company of the 204th Support battalion of the 4th Infantry Division. She was the leader of the Treatment Platoon at the Battalion Aid Station. The aid station was like a 24/7 doctor’s office for the battalion, civilian contractors and locals who needed care.

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Emily in the center surrounded by some of her soldiers.

In addition to her duties as C Company Treatment Platoon leader, she was also the battalion public affairs officer and eventually was responsible for recon around the FOB perimeter (Kalsu or Duke, I’m not sure which one).

The Army also thought that she and her soldiers ought to be out on convoy duty in their spare time to make up for the shortage of transportation corps troops. That’s how Rumsfeld tried to make good on his estimate that there were enough troops in country. He made many soldiers work to the point of exhaustion at duties they had not trained for. So she became a frequent convoy leader leading them to the ten different FOBs in her area of operations - Southern Iraq. She never revealed this to her parents who thought she was somewhat safe behind the wire at her FOB. Her gunner was impressed by her. She was always in the first vehicle, leading from the front, confident and seemingly fearless. In a world of IEDs and ambushes, the lead vehicle was never the safest place to be, particularly in the Iraq of 2005-2006. It went on like that for months, a full schedule in the Battalion Aid Station, and long hours on the gravel with the threat of enemy action always present. One soldier recalls her at Battalion Communications one midnight needing to use a phone. He gave her his desk and phone. She used the phone, hung up and immediately fell asleep, power napping before leaving.

Anywhere in Iraq was the front line. There were attacks on her convoys and she witnessed the aftermath of another attacked convoy, taking command of the situation until the rapid response troops arrived. No one was under any illusions about the possibilities. They had seen them first hand.

The evening of September 11, 2006, saw a new Lieutenant fresh from the states assigned to lead a convoy. The new LT was not ready to lead a convoy. Emily volunteered to lead it rather than put her soldiers under an inexperienced leader and was allowed to replace the new LT.

So it was that little Emily Perez, 2nd Lt. United States Army Medical Service Corps, after ten months in Iraq, led her soldiers out onto the gravel one more time.

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Lt. Perez, saddles up and leads them into the night.

In the early morning darkness of September 12, 2006, her HMMWV, at the head of a seventeen vehicle convoy near Najaf in southern Iraq, drove over an explosively formed penetrator, the deadliest of IEDs. It exploded underneath her. The blast injuries killed her instantly. Her translator, seated behind her, suffered blunt force amputation of his legs below the knees. Her driver and gunner survived with light wounds. They discovered Emily was killed and pulled the translator from the burning HMMWV just before the ammo cooked off.

Part of the Cadet Prayer says, "Make us to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong…"

The decision not to allow her soldiers to be placed under the command of an unprepared officer had cost her life. Not every act of valor in war is accomplished with an attack on the enemy. Sometimes it’s as simple as a conscious choice by a medical service corps officer to do the right thing: take care of her soldiers, no matter how tired she might be or how easy it would be to look the other way.

Emily’s Superintendent at West Point was LTG William Lennox. Because of her cadet rank, he had known and worked with Emily during her time there. He retired from the Army a few months before she was killed. Not many cadets have their retired Superintendent eulogize them at their funerals, but Emily’s made the trip and did exactly that.

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L-R: The Cadet First Captain Ryan L Boeka, The Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, former Senator Bob Dole, Cadet CSM Emily J T Perez, LTG William Lennox, Superintendent of West Point,unknown cadet, after a Brigade parade the afternoon of Dole's Thayer Award ceremony, September 29, 2004.

A while ago in an email exchange Emily’s faculty advisor from West Point wrote that six years after her death and seven years after her graduation, she was "bordering on legendary at West Point." Considering the history of cadets from that institution, that’s a big statement.

Her department head authored a book in which he wrote briefly of her calling her an incredible leader. The current Superintendent referred to her as a "magnificent leader of character" during an impromptu speech to a raucous gathering of cadets in front of his house the night Bin Laden was killed.

It’s here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23BHioBHD4Y

Some lines from a Time Magazine article about her at the time of her death:

Even at a school of overachievers, Perez's friends and teachers say that she stood out…. Professors wanted her to be in their classes, soldiers wanted her to lead their cadets, underclassmen wanted to catch a little bit of the unstoppable drive that pushed her to meet and exceed the many challenges the academy throws at its students.

"She was a star among stars," is how classmate Meagan Belk puts it. "You just never would have imagined this would happen to her."

Yolanda Ramirez-Raphael, her roommate at West Point, says that Perez's accomplishments in life all stemmed from an unshakeable self-confidence. "She didn't worry about whether someone liked her or not," says Ramirez-Raphael. At male-dominated West Point, she says, "women will sometimes try to change their leadership style, but not Emily. She always got right to the point."

Perez wasn't bashful about her faith either. Every Sunday morning, she'd wake up by playing gospel CDs as she read the Bible. Her roommate Ramirez-Raphael, always trying to catch up on sleep, says Sunday mornings weren't safe until Perez — and the tambourine she always took to play in the Gospel Choir — were at church.

That faith drove Perez to envision a life of service beyond war. As a teenager in Fort Washington, Md., she set up an AIDS ministry in her church. And although her faculty advisor Ender says she could have been literally anything she wanted to, she was most passionate about global-health issues. "She could have been the next Paul Farmer," says Ender. "That's the commitment, and the talent, that she had."

"People often say only good things about someone after they've died, but none of this is hyperbole," he said, "Emily was amazing."

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Her grave in section XXXVI in the West Point Cemetery.

Sara Leatherman was a soldier in C Company and wrote this recollection of her night when Lt Perez was killed.

“It was September 12th 2006. This night seemed like any of the 100′s of nights I had been in Iraq. People were out on convoy, others were working the aid station. It was nearing the time I had to start getting ready for guard duty which pissed me off because no other medics in other units pulled guard duty. As I was getting all my gear together I got the news one of our convoys had been hit, it spread though the company like wildfire. I sat there racking my brain trying to think of who went out that night. I knew some of our medics had, but who? I was pissed because we were running those gravel missions. Yet, I couldn’t think who went out that night. Then I saw my roommate walking up, it was the time of night where the sun had just set so you could still see. I was the one who told her our convoy got hit. Instant panic set in to this young kid. She knew who was on that convoy. My best friend Johnson, another good friend Truesdale, and LT Perez. She was in a state of shock just for a moment, then all of her emotions flowed out and she was a mess. I knew I had to take care of her, but I also knew I had to leave I couldn’t be late for guard duty. So as quickly as I could I threw on all my gear and grabbed her. I took her to my other friends and explained the situation, handed her off and took off sprinting, gravel crunching under each hit of my boot. I made it to duty. Then it seemed as if time slowed. Minutes seemed like hours. They were getting the news of what truck and who was in it. LT Perez KIA. I couldn’t be emotional, I had duty. Finally I got to the tower I was assigned for my eight hour shift. I was emotionally numb and trying to be vigilant. I could feel the coolness of the night through my body armor. It seemed almost fitting, but then the female I was on duty with broke down. I didn’t even know this girl and here I was taking care of someone else. When my shift was over I had never been so glad to be out of uniform and sleep. That was the night my world changed forever.”

Sara Leatherman committed suicide on Emily's birthday in 2010.

Since this piece mentioned a hockey player at the beginning, sort of, it ought to end with something hockey related. Emily J T Perez was killed in action on September 12, 2006. That was the day that Rick Dipietro signed his 15 year deal with the Islanders. Until recently I knew more about that than I did Emily Perez.

Appropriate music for Memorial Day (I can't make it a hot link);

http://www.youtube.com/embed/3KGHhEJdfFM

Have a good Memorial Day everyone.

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