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Four Guardsmen get Bronze Star: Honor for attempted rescue of Josh Hanson is 'bittersweet'

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Four local Minnesota National Guardsmen were honored for their bravery and efforts when an improvised explosive device took the life of one of their own.

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Sgt. Brian Ness of Winona; Staff Sgt. Justin Knopf of Detroit Lakes; Sgt. 1st Class James Bakkila of Perham, and Staff Sgt. Dane Ronning, formerly of Audubon and now of Fargo, were awarded the Bronze Star Valor Medal for their efforts to save Staff Sgt. Joshua Hanson, who died Aug. 30.

Ask any of them, and they'll say they don't feel they deserved the honor and that Hanson is the one to be remembered, not them for their efforts.

"The award really doesn't mean that much to me," Knopf said via telephone from Iraq. "Because Josh was one of my team members, one of my team leaders. The award can't bring him back. I'd give anything, I'd give the award back, I'd give all my money back, just to have him back, to be coming home with us in a month ... The award, I'm going to wear it with pride, in honor of Josh."

Capt. Adam Gilbertson said the award is "certainly a bittersweet thing," but the guys de-serve the honor regardless of downplaying their bravery.

The men serve with the 2-136th Combined Arms Battalion, the 1-34th Brigade Combat Team, based out of Detroit Lakes and Bemidji.

Ness served as lead medic, Knopf as squad leader, Ronning as section leader and Bakkila as platoon sergeant.

What happened

The men were near the city of Khalidiyah, clearing the area of insurgents.

"The insurgents had gained a strong point in the town and were utilizing the area as a sup-ply point to stage and conduct attacks using small arms fire, indirect fire and improvised explosive devices to inflict severe injuries and death to Coalition Forces," the narrative read at the awards ceremony said.

At approximately 11:45 a.m., while returning to Kilo Company headquarters, Hanson's Humvee was struck by an IED. The force of the blast ruptured the fuel cell and caused the rear seat to pitch forward and knock Hanson unconscious and trap his legs between the rear seat and the front seat support. The vehicle instantly became engulfed in flames.

Ness and Knopf were in the vehicle with Hanson, and Bakkila and Ronning were in Bradley Fighting vehicles along with the Humvee.

As they tried to pull Hanson from the vehicle, their hands and arms were burned.

"Ness quickly tried to find a fire extinguisher in the vehicle, but the flames were too intense. Upon Ness' return to Hanson's side, he, without regard to his own safety, dove into the vehicle and tried to free Hanson's legs by pulling straight up on them, but the flames continue to increase in intensity.

"Ness tried to free Hanson again, but Hanson's uniform ripped away from his body."

As the four men worked to free Hanson, the ammunition inside the vehicle started "cooking off," and the AT4 mounted on top of the vehicle exploded.

Bakkila used a fire extinguisher, but the fire was too intense.

"The possibility of sniper fire forced Ness to realize they had to seek cover, and that Hanson could not be freed. They ran to the ditch to protect themselves from enemy fire and explosions."

Ness was later evacuated from the scene because of burns to his face and hands and smoke inhalation injuries he received from the multiple rescue at-tempts.

In their own words

Bakkila said the convoy of three -- a Bradley, Humvee and another Bradley -- were returning back to their base for a short break to get some rest and some water after a long day.

"He rolled over two anti-tank mines that were buried in the road. It punctured near the passenger, and Josh was sitting there," Bakkila explained.

"We were driving around and heard a round go off. I initially thought it was mortar fire coming in. By the time I got up and turned around, I saw that the vehicle behind us was completely engulfed in flames and smoke," said Ronning, who was in the Bradley in front of Hanson's Humvee.

Bakkila said the vehicle jumped into the air and came down. He spun the Bradley around so he could see what was going on, pulled security, and dismounted out of the vehicle. He said he saw Knopf yelling that someone was still in the Humvee. He saw Knopf tackle Ness because he was on fire and put Ness' fire out. He then tried to assist Knopf in rescuing Hanson.

"When we got there, Staff Sgt. Hanson was either dead or unconscious. His helmet wasn't on, so the blast must have blown it off. He was trapped in the backseat," Bakkila said.

"The flames kept coming and coming." The flames were "gigantic. The vehicle was melting in front of us."

Because of sniper fire the previous night, Bakkila helped the rest of the dismounts to safety.

"Pretty much just a sucky situation," is how he summed up that day.

"I'm pretty sure the blast killed him (Hanson). We were just trying to save him. There was no time to assess anything. We were just trying to get him out of there. Whether he was alive or dead, he was still Josh," Bakkila added.

Knopf -- who served as vehicle commander of the Humvee Hanson was riding in -- said trying to save Hanson was like having a one-track mind of just getting in there and doing it. He added that he could hear rounds of ammunition going off but it was in the back of his mind.

Knopf said he was filled with frustration, trying to rescue Hanson and not getting anywhere. Going through his head was, "Why Josh? What the hell is going on? Where is this super-human strength you hear people getting when it comes down to situations like this? Why can't I get him out?"

Ronning said he was feeling, "a lot and a lot of nothing. It's just kind of hard to talk about. It's one of the guys. There's someone there. We're all a really tight group, almost family. Someone's hurt, you do everything you can to get them out."

Ness was in the backseat with Hanson when the IED went off. He was behind the driver, and Hanson was sitting behind the passenger.

"More or less, Justin (Knopf) and I were about the same, just going in and trying to pull him out."

He said he's filled with dis-belief about that day.

"To be honest, I don't remember a lot of what happened. It happened so fast. I'll read the other guys' sworn statements about it and I'll start to remember parts of it. But it all just happened so fast. I wasn't really thinking much," he said.

He added that he just knew they had to get Hanson out of the vehicle.

It didn't hit Ness until the memorial ceremony three or four days later on the base that he had lost a fellow soldier, a friend.

Physical, emotional training

"Like a high school football game, if you mess up a play, there's another chance and you can try over. It's no big deal. But here, our team, any kind of mistake that happens, there's a possibility ... there's no make-ups, there's no redos," Knopf explained of training for what the soldiers could run into in Iraq.

Before going to Iraq, the Guardsmen were trained on how to react to IED blasts and evacuation drills, "but nothing prepared us for flames every-where and trying to get a trapped soldier out," Bakkila said.

"We go and see the chaplain, but mostly it's just talking among ourselves, and remembering Josh amongst ourselves," Bakkila said is how they get through losing Hanson. "And remembering the good times we had. That's how we get through it, by bonding with each other."

Award ceremony

Although they were all awarded a medal, none feel it's necessary.

Bakkila said although they got it for being heroes, they still didn't get their guy out.

"It's just one of those things. It sucks," he said.

Knopf said he felt frustration that day, mainly because Hanson wasn't there.

"I miss Josh and I can't get him back, so that's frustrating."

He said that any one person would have done the same thing to save Hanson, "it's just that I was in a situation to do it."

"I don't think we really deserve an award for it. I think no matter who it was, anybody would have done the exact same thing without thinking," Ness agreed. "I just feel it was an award that didn't need to be given."

Ronning said he's not big on awards because he's seen too many given out.

"The military gives out an awful lot of them, and I personally I felt that ... On one point, I didn't feel I deserved it, but on the other point, I didn't want to take anything away from the other guys standing up there by me as they were getting theirs as well."

While the four men may think they didn't do anything out of the ordinary, their commander, Gilbertson, thinks differently. He said the heroism they showed is a textbook ex-ample of why the awards were given to them.

"They don't feel they need the award because there was no question in their mind, there was no other alternative. This is a brother of theirs, and what do you do? You try and save them with everything you can, and that's exactly what they did, but in doing so, with no regard to their own safety, gave it everything they could."

Remembering Josh

"He was the most entertaining person I ever met," Bakkila said.

Which seems to be the general consensus.

"He was always the guy that had the funny comment. Always seemed to have a smile, or at least a sarcastic smile on his face. That's how I want to remember him," Ness said.

Unfortunately, he said, he'll remember the day Hanson died forever because it's stuck in his head. But he'd like to keep the memories of just hanging out together stuck in his head instead.

Ronning agreed Hanson was a funny guy. He went to basic training with Hanson and had known him for almost 10 years.

"A solid member of the team that always made people laugh," he described Hanson. "Just generally funny. He was a good man."

Four men jumped in harm's way to save their colleague, brother, friend. Something they didn't even think twice about.

"It says a lot about four individuals getting a Bronze Star Valor for one person. It says a lot about Josh, that four guys would put themselves in danger to save him," Knopf said.

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