VERGENNES — The keynote speaker at the service following the Vergennes Memorial Day parade will bring a lifetime of experience to the podium on the city green. Michael Wojciechowski, a Purple Heart recipient and highly decorated soldier, served in the Army National Guard for more than a quarter of a century — some of that in the hot spots of Iraq and Afghanistan.
He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and family in Addison, and is a member of American Legion Post 14.
Wojciechowski grew up in Pasadena, Md., and joined the Army National Guard while still in high school, attending basic training between his junior and senior year. He said he joined at age 17-and-a-half not because he needed money for college or to acquire a trade or set of skills but because he wanted to serve his country.
As a teen the words “Memorial Day” conjured up different images for Wojciechowski than they do today. Wojciechowski grew up around veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and he would pause to reflect on those who had given their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice. Wojciechowski, after a career spanning 26 years and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, would be the first to admit that Memorial Day brings a great deal of emotion to the surface for him and makes him certain that veterans must never be forgotten.
Serving in the Army National Guard from 1986-2012, Wojciechowski followed in his father’s footsteps and took his place in the military as part of his heritage. While he did not foresee the events that would befall his unit during their deployment to Iraq as part of Task Force Red Lake in 2004-2005 serving as military police he feels very fortunate to be alive to this day. His company was part of the 18th Military Police Brigade and the 95th MP Battalion (Airborne).
“We were the lead vehicle in a convoy headed for Baghdad,” Wojciechowski recalled, “and were traveling on the road in an up-armored Humvee at about 60-65 mph. It was about 10 p.m. and very hot, almost 90 degrees. I had the worst migraine headache I had ever had while stationed in Iraq and was sitting as far back from the Blue Force Tracker screen as I could.
“As squad leader I had ordered the doors of the Humvee battle-locked and we left the gate. Behind us were tractor-trailers in a convoy headed to Baghdad. I sat back with my helmet cocked forward and there was a flash and the vehicle began spinning in circles and it was completely black inside. We had tripped a wire setting off a roadside bomb which cosseted six 152mm artillery rounds.”
When the vehicle finished spinning, Wojciechowski oriented himself in the darkness and smelled diesel fuel. Hollering for his driver and gunner, he began pushing out the door nearest to him and then pulled out a crewmember nicknamed “Bear.” Immediate dangers included the possibility of another bomb and even being hit by the convoy behind him traveling at a speed over 60 mph. A detachment of U.S. Marines came three miles from the checkpoint to secure the area.
Wojciechowski and his gunner, Bear, were lifted to a secure part of Baghdad known as the Green Zone. The squad leader looked at his own condition and found his shirt covered in blood and knew he was hit. He was told to sit down and get treated by a Marine corpsman; he did not know for almost 30 minutes that his nose had been blown off. Had he been sitting forward in his seat he believe he would have lost his life.
While the Green Zone was supposed to be the safest area of Iraq, Wojciechowski found himself treated in a hospital that had once served as a hospital for Saddam Hussein’s family, and mortar shells and sirens made him feel safer back with his own unit. He returned to his unit less than a day and half later, completed his tour of duty and served a second tour in Afghanistan in 2010.
After he recovered from this injury, Wojciechowski received a Purple Heart, which is bestowed upon servicemen and women injured in the line of duty.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Wojciechowski’s career awards include Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal for Valor, five Army Commendation Medals, seven Army Achievement Medals, six Army Good Conduct Awards, two National Defense Service Medals, Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terror Service Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, NATO Service Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation, Combat Action Badge, Combat Infantryman Badge, Ranger Tab, Basic Jump Wings, and Air Assault Wings.
Wojciechowski looks at Vermont as a place where Memorial Day has a great deal of personal meaning.
“Vermont has so many veterans in this state who have served,” he said. “While what a person takes away from Memorial Day is personal, Vermonters have the unique perspective of being in the midst of knowing people who are serving now and being related to those who served and those who came home wounded.”
When asked to share with readers any missing pieces of information or perspectives that most Americans may not have on Memorial Day, Wojciechowski paused and his smile dimmed to a more serious and contemplative look.
“So many people have given the ultimate sacrifice for their county,” Wojciechowski reflected. “People hear about those killed in action but for every one who dies four or five are wounded. Some lose legs, others arms, and they come back home to struggles and life-changing conditions. I feel those people are often overlooked or not remembered.”
Memorial Day signals the official start of the summer celebration season and barbecue chicken, watermelon, balloons, family and festivities, but Michael Wojciechowski and other veterans will each go to a place in their hearts and minds that places them with the other veterans of this country. While they do not ask for glory for themselves, each veteran interviewed emphasized the need to share that veterans must never be forgotten and we must especially not forget those who did not come home or who came home with their lives changed.
Americans will celebrate Memorial Day in freedom owed to those who served and continue to serve.
Editor’s note: This story was provided by Cookie Steponaitis, a member of American Legion Post 14.