Sandy Huffaker for NPR
More than 11 years after a bullet grazed his head in Afghanistan, shattered his eardrum and fell off the side of his face, Joe Hardebeck has been awarded the Purple Heart.
But for a long time, the pride of the 33-year-old Navy medic got in the way. In reality, he had not been shot or lost a limb. Hardebeck did not believe that he had been injured badly enough to deserve the oldest award in the military.
Hardebeck currently works with the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, in the artillery unit at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. But the injuries he is being recognized for took place in the spring of 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous cities in the country at the time.
The Marines had been ambushed three or four times that day. The Taliban fighters attacked with small arms from several hundred meters away, the Marines responding with their own barrage of bullets. Eventually the fighting would come to a halt, only to begin again a short time later, after the Marines were comfortable, but not complacent, with the silence.
It was February 21, 2010, and the Taliban were fighting to maintain control of the city of Marjah, their last stronghold in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. They would not leave in silence.
Hardebeck, then a 22-year-old Navy hospital medic assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, was on his second combat deployment. And although his role, traditionally, was to save lives, not take them, he was considered a combatant until the situation dictated, moving seamlessly from rifleman to lifeguard in no time.
In the silence, Hardebeck leaned against a wall, scanning the horizon for indicators of the next attack. The marines had taken cover behind a small building, leaping from structure to structure as they advanced through rural farmland.
Then came a deafening crack, a miniature explosion. A bullet aimed at his head had missed, hitting the wall several inches from his face. Hardebeck backed away behind the wall after the impact splattered him with dirt and debris.
“I think they’re shooting at me,” he told the surrounding Marines. Everyone laughed, as always, before going about their business, running and shooting in a country far from home.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the round had passed so close and at such great speed that the pressure ruptured his eardrum. Hardebeck said he even caused a minor burn on the side of his cheek.
Shortly after, another Marine approached him and said, “Do you know there is blood coming out of your ear?” At the same time, an officer grabbed Hardebeck and rushed him. A marine on the other side of the road had been shot; they needed help.
The idea of leaving his men to seek proper medical attention never crossed his mind. Hardebeck was the senior physician in his company, responsible for overseeing a dozen other “doctors,” men who turned to him for guidance.
Besides, the marines were his family. If something had happened to them while he was gone, she explained later, she would never forgive him. And so it stayed.
Originally created by George Washington in 1782 as the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart is presented to service members who are killed or wounded in combat. It is a prize that most do not want to pay their pound of meat for.
There have been more than 1.8 million recipients since its inception, but Hardebeck believes that the number of those who qualify for the the prize is bigger. A handful of his companions were also injured, to some extent, while serving abroad.
But many service members, like Hardebeck, Those who qualify for the Purple Heart keep their woes to themselves.
“When something we see as minor, be it a small abrasion, a cut, a punctured eardrum, something that didn’t get us out of the fight, it’s hard to accept the fact that he still has a purple heart,” said Hardebeck. “And that’s where my mind went with all of that. Not that I didn’t think I should get it per se, but I didn’t think I deserved it. I wasn’t hurt enough.”
It wasn’t until years later, in 2017, that a tragedy reunited Hardebeck and some of the Marines on that deployment. And in typical Marine fashion, the men began exchanging beer stories, reminiscing about their time in Afghanistan and the events.
About half of the men at the table, Hardebeck recalled, had been injured during the push toward Marjah, many of them by shrapnel and rocks after the explosion of an improvised explosive device. And aside from a hardened marine, who had three Purple Hearts, no one had filed the paperwork.
When her eyes turned to him, Hardebeck promised that he would at least study how to make the presentation. for the award. He spent most of the year gathering his records and contacting his previous commanders to answer for him.
At the end of 2017, his request was denied. But Hardebeck reapplied a year later, and with additional paperwork in his corner, his application was granted.
Hardebeck was retroactively awarded the Purple Heart at Camp Pendleton Thursday afternoon in a ceremony that lasted less than half an hour. Her mother, Cheryl Redwine, said tears welled up in her eyes as she looked through the crowd. He sat with Hardebeck’s two sons and their mother, all of whom had flown for the occasion.
After the ceremony, Hardebeck’s fellow Marines and sailors descended on him to hug them, shake hands, and congratulate them. Shortly after that, the crowd dispersed.
“It’s pretty surreal to me,” Hardebeck said. “A part of me is happy that I followed the advice of those close to me to push me to win the award, but I am also happy that this chapter of my life is over and I can move on.
“It makes me think about everything I’ve been through and where I’ve been since then.”
While Hardebeck received his award, the United States handed over control of Bagram Airfield, one of the largest military installations in Afghanistan. After nearly 20 years, the US military is withdrawing its troops from the country.
His mind wanders through the past from time to time. The names of 11 fellow Marines Those who did not return home from Afghanistan often weigh heavily on him, some days slightly more than others.
But Hardebeck has learned to celebrate the lives of his fallen friends, living his best life for them. This weekend, that means fireworks with your family. They will spend Independence Day together, watching the skies light up.
Former Cpl. Dustin Jones served in Helmand province, Afghanistan, with Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, from 2009 to 2010.