Elm Grove's David Nesseth earns Purple Heart, Combat Action Badge
Tragedy fuels Army lieutenant's passion for mission
May 20 started as a normal work day, but quickly turned tragic for U.S. Army 1st Lt. David Nesseth and his team.
Security Forces Advisory Team 28 had only been on their assigned mission in Afghanistan for three days. Their daily routine consisted of going to the Tarin Kowt Police Substation for several hours a day, teaching Afghan National Police how to make the city, located in southern Afghanistan, more secure.
As David and the 14 others on his team finished their day and headed back to their vehicles, a suicide bomber emerged from a hiding spot.
"He came from behind a shack, took two steps toward our patrol car and blew himself up," David recalled during a phone interview from Afghanistan. "I saw him from the corner of my eye, but I didn't think anything of it because there were other people and children around."
The 25-year-old Elm Grove native was blown off the ground and knocked unconscious.
"I regained consciousness, checked myself for any injuries - I didn't have any. When I got up, I looked around and I didn't see anyone moving at all," he said. "I thought everyone had died except for me."
He instantly jumped into emergency mode.
"I immediately started to triage the people that were on the ground injured and helped them to safety," he said.
Waiting for news
David's parents, John and Kathy Nesseth of Elm Grove, were out of town when they learned their son had been involved in an attack.
"We got a phone call from David and he said, 'I'm OK. There are others worse than me. I can't say anymore.' My mind went wild. What does 'I'm OK' mean?' " Kathy said, concern for her son's well-being still in her voice.
John and Kathy didn't hear from their son for the next 10 days. They didn't know if he was badly injured, if he was safe, or if anyone had died in the attack. The Nesseths relied on prayer and each other to make it through each day as they longed to hear their son's voice again.
"We waited and waited and waited," Kathy said.
David later arrived at a recovery unit in Kandahar, where he was treated for a concussion and eventually shared the full, traumatizing story with his parents.
"Listening and piecing together all the information was difficult," John said.
They received a picture of David's holster and gun, which was later determined to be inoperable. The only injury he sustained other than the concussion was the indentation of the holster and gun on his thigh.
"This was nothing short of a miracle," John said.
Two members of SFAT 28 were killed instantly in the explosion.
David, a Brookfield East High School graduate, credits his preparedness not only to training he received in the Army, but also to training he received as an Eagle Scout and working toward the First Aid Merit Badge.
Still, nothing could have prepared him fully for the loss of his friends.
For his brave and courageous actions that day, David earned a Purple Heart and Combat Action Badge.
He said the honors don't ease the pain of loss.
"Honestly, I was happy to receive the awards, but I would give both of them back if I could have my friends back," he said.
His parents said tending to the needs of others is nothing new for their son.
"He's a very caring individual. If he thinks someone needs something, he gets it for them, even as a kid," Kathy said.
"He's caring, dedicated and determined," John added.
His parents still worry, but are extremely proud of their son, whose service began when he volunteered for the ROTC program at University of North Dakota Grand Forks.
They were apprehensive, but allowed their son to answer his calling.
"This is not every parent's dream, but I let him pick his choice," Kathy said.
Following the attack, large barriers were built around the Tarin Kowt Police Substation.
David said the new barriers allow his team to continue their mission of advising the Afghan police in a safer environment.
"We are able to keep our vehicles inside a secure area. It deters any suicide bombers from attacking us while we're loading up our vehicles, a time when we are most vulnerable," David said.
He thinks often thinks about the fateful day he lost two friends.
"Every day I think of the two guys, and I know they would want me to continue the mission," he said.
He hopes to leave Afghanistan by year-end and return to his duty station at Fort Sill, Okla.
When asked if he would have gone to Afghanistan had he known the events of May 20 would take place, David replied: "Yes, because I have a patriotic duty to serve and protect the future of America. No matter what issues may arise, it is my duty to serve."
About the Medals
PURPLE HEART: received by military men and women for wounds suffered in combat
COMBAT ACTION BADGE: earned by soldiers who perform assigned duties in an area where hostile fire and danger is present
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