Marine of the Year Sgt. Andrew Seif, left, and wife Denise Munden pose for photos with Gen. John Paxton, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and wife Debbie Paxton Oct. 25 at the 2013 USO gala in Washington. (Meghann Myers / Staff)
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Sailor of the Year EOD1 Andrew C. Munden, left, with Chief Master Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens on Oct. 25 and the 2013 USA gala in Washington. (Meghann Myers / Staff)
Admirals and generals packed into a ballroom Friday night for a gala in Washington, D.C., but the top brass didn’t talk of their own achievements – they were honoring the USO’s 2013 service members of the year.
Five men were chosen for their extraordinary service in battle, while the USO also honored three others for their work at home.
Master of ceremonies Dennis Haysbert, who played the President on “24” and a sergeant major on “The Unit,” has twice visited the warzone for USO tours.
“I have over 150 challenge coins, all of which were given me in a handshake and all with same phrase, ‘Thank you for risking your life to visit us.’” he said. “I never saw it that way. … I saw [USO tours] as a way to pay tribute to the men and women who risk their lives daily.
The honorees were just as thankful for the USO.
“There’s a lot of really proud patriots who are trying to do a really good thing, and I'm just happy to be a part of it with everybody else,” Sgt. Andrew Seif, the USO’s Marine of the year, told Military Times.
Seif received his honor for actions during a 2012 deployment with the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion.
During a mission to detain a high-value target, Seif cleared a compound on his own while under enemy fire, and tended to a fellow Marine’s wounds while they waited for reinforcements. He has been recommended for the Silver Star.
Sgt. Craig Warfle, an Army ranger, is USO’s Soldier of the Year. Warfle received the Distinguished Service Cross in 2012 for actions in Afghanistan in 2010. While on conducting a helicopter raid on a high-value Taliban target, Warfle. braved heavy machine gun fire and kept fighting even after receiving a significant shoulder wound.
“To have this kind of positive attention directed to me and the unit and the military as a whole, it’s been great,” said Warfle.
Explosive Ordnance Technician 1st Class (EWS) Andrew Munden was at home, resting after a deployment to Afghanistan, when he got a call from the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy's office, congratulating him on winning USO’s Sailor of the Year.
“I thought it was a prank at first,” he said. “I was like, yeah, sure, who is this?”
Munden earned his award for actions as an EOD tech attached to Navy SEAL Team 5 during a 2012 deployment. Munden carried out more than 140 combat patrols, clearing 40 improvised explosive devices without a protective bomb suit or ordnance disposal robot.
Fellow EOD technician Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher D. Broyles, of the 140th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, earned his title as USO Airman of the Year during a deployment to Afghanistan, working with a Marine Corps unit, when his platoon engaged 40 insurgents over three days.
Broyles cleared four vehicles destroyed by IEDs, saving six lives, including two critically injured Marines. He said he wasn’t sure he wanted the award at first, because he felt like so many other guys in his unit were just as heroic.
“A Marine gunnery sergeant wrote the report, and he was like, ‘No, people don't do what you did every day,’” Broyles said.
National Guardsman of the Year, Staff Sgt. Christopher Petersen, from the New York Air National Guard’s 103rd Rescue Squadron, took small arms fire at close-range while completing a medevac mission for four severely wounded coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.
Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Samuel Peikert stood out from the rest of his fellow nominees, as the one service member who earned his award for heroism while off-duty.
Peikert and his brother were spending a day on the San Marcos River in Texas during summer 2012 when they saw a father and son swept over a 20-foot dam and pulled into the river below.
Peikert dove in and swam 50 yards through the rapids to rescue the pair, pulling them to safety and administering first aid to the father’s head wound and the son’s mangled leg.
“I was like, I don’t even really think I deserve to be put up for that,” Peikert said when he heard of his nomination.
The USO Volunteer of the Year is Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, for his work helping troops adjust to being forward-deployed at Camp Hansen on Okinawa, Japan.
And the winner of the Spirit of the USO award was David McIntyre Jr., the president of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, for his work in providing health care to military families.
Before the ceremony, the service members of the year posed for photos and mingled with their own top commanders and enlisted leaders.
Munden put Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert on the phone with a friend back home, while Munden’s wife Denise snapped photos.
Country music legend Wynonna Judd performed two songs, one of which she wrote for the soundtrack of the upcoming Afghanistan war documentary “The Hornet’s Nest.”