NU Alumnus Awarded Purple Heart

August 19, 2014  |  by Michael Freedman

Sgt. Benjamin H. Benally, a 2014 Niagara University graduate, was presented with a Purple Heart yesterday for injuries sustained while serving with the United States Army in Afghanistan.

The presentation was made by Congressman Brian Higgins at the VA Western New York Health Center in Buffalo

“For Sgt. Benally and many of our military personnel, the injuries sustained during service are long-lasting,” Higgins said. “For his bravery, commitment and sacrifices, we are honored to present him with this Purple Heart on behalf of a grateful nation.”

“The price of freedom is not free,” Buffalo VA Medical Center Director Brian Stiller said. “We thank Sgt. Benally for his selfless service to our country. He is an inspiration for all of us to meet future challenges that we may face as a nation.”

Benally was deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 15, 2008, and served in the U.S. Army in the Taskforce Catamounts Alpha Company 2-87 1st Platoon. He began as a specialist and rose to the rank of sergeant.

Seven months into his service, on July 25, 2009, Benally and his unit were in a convoy going through the small Afghan village of Juy Zurin when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated. Benally was manning the mounted weapon, or turret, on the vehicle, which was struck by the IED. He was knocked unconscious.

Motionless, other soldiers in his unit feared Benally was dead. The rest of the vehicles in the convoy were disabled immediately after the detonation.

Cpl. Eli Zajchowski was in the third vehicle of the convoy and was performing the duties of platoon medic. He assisted in removing Benally from the vehicle and began providing medical attention. Treatment was limited due to the location.

Upon return to Combat Outpost Tangi, Benally visited the medic for an evaluation and he was diagnosed with a concussion and traumatic brain injury. A physical evaluation followed and showed he suffered additional injuries to his right arm. He was treated at the outpost and returned to limited duty.

Benally returned home from his deployment in January of 2010 and later graduated from Niagara University with a B.A. in communications.

Created in 1782 by Gen. George Washington, the Badge of Military Merit was implemented to honor those who demonstrated “meritorious action.” Though the award soon fell out of circulation, on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday, Gen. Douglas MacArthur reinstated the award. Renamed the Purple Heart Medal, the award is granted to service members injured as a result of enemy action.

In 2011, the Army broadened the criteria for the Purple Heart to include soldiers who received concussions or other brain injuries. This is especially important, because modern wars have resulted in an increase in the number of traumatic brain injuries. From 2000-12 there were more than 250,000 documented cases of traumatic brain injuries among those who served.

With the increase in use of explosive devices in warfare, approximately 20 percent of service members have experienced a traumatic brain injury during their deployment. The Purple Heart Medal now honors those service members who sustain these types of injuries while serving and protecting their country.

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Information and photo courtesy of the Office of Congressman Higgins.