DANVILLE – It wasn't until weeks later, recovering in a U.S. hospital, that Dann Hufford realized his actions in Iraq could be considered heroic.
"I had no idea what I had really done," said the 22-year-old Danville native, whose actions in an ambush in Baghdad, Iraq, saved his own life and those of four other U.S. servicemen.
But his platoon sergeant knew that Hufford's actions had saved lives, and nominated him for a medal.
In October, Brig. Gen. Dennis Celletti, the Assistant Adjutant General of the Illinois Army National Guard, awarded Hufford the fourth-highest award among all military branches: the Bronze Star with the "V" device.
The Bronze Star is awarded for combat heroism or meritorious service, and the "V" designates Hufford's as an award for combat heroism. More than 41,000 Bronze Stars have been awarded since the war in Iraq began; 1,142 are for combat heroism.
Part of Hufford's knee was blown off during the ambush, and he underwent surgery in Germany and physical therapy in a U.S. hospital and learned to walk again. While he was still in Germany, his sergeant told him of his nomination.
"It's a great honor," said Hufford, a 2004 Danville High graduate, who's still in the National Guard and works as a warehouse team leader at Dawson Logistics.
Hufford entered the Army National Guard after high school graduation. He was deployed to Iraq in January 2005 with the C Company, 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry Regiment based in Litchfield.
As infantrymen, Hufford and his fellow soldiers were on the streets of Baghdad daily, patrolling and searching for weapons, insurgents and terrorists.
On Sept. 15, 2005, their convoy was ambushed.
Anti-American forces began firing rocket-propelled grenades at the convoy.
Hufford stood up from his truck, exposing himself, and began firing at a car, carrying a bomb, that was headed for the truck. Hufford kept firing, killing the driver before the car could ram them. Had that happened, Hufford and the other four would have been killed by the car bomb. Instead, only two were injured by the grenades: Hufford and his team leader, whose leg was seriously wounded.
Hufford doesn't like to discuss the incident in detail, not even talking to his family about it.
"It's a real sensitive thing," he said.
His mother, Lisa Cox of Danville, keeps his Bronze Star and Purple Heart, awarded for his injuries in combat, displayed at her home.
"I'm very proud of my son," she said. "It's a very high honor. He's a quiet person, and for him to put his life out there to protect his fellow soldiers, it warms my heart."
Hufford said his time in Iraq was a learning experience, teaching him not only about the Iraqi people and culture but also about himself. He learned that he could endure a lot, mostly the pressures of combat and being away from family and friends.
He really enjoyed distributing toys, clothing and other donated items to Iraqi children.
"I loved it," he said. "You would come across kids that didn't have any shoes, and you'd go through a box to see if you could find the right size."
They handed out candy, too, he said, but not chocolate.
"It would melt pretty fast," he said.
He believes the experience matured him.
"I find myself taking charge of things more, mainly volunteering to take charge," he said. "I'm very confident in myself."
Hufford recently completed aviation operation specialist training in Arizona through the National Guard and might consider training to be a helicopter pilot. He also wants to complete college.
For now, he'll continue working at Dawson Logistics and serving in the National Guard through 2010.
He said he wouldn't hesitate if called back to Iraq because he knows that "each terrorist we bring down makes the world a safer place, and not just for the U.S. but for other countries, too."