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Year in review

Top 2019 soldiers’ stories range from saving lives to spotlighting fitness

Photo illustration by Devon Suits

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Some of the biggest stories of the year highlighted people, "the Army's No. 1 resource," as emphasized by senior leaders.

This year, three soldiers were recognized with the Medal of Honor for their acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan. A handful of soldiers revealed their fitness potential, either by maxing the Army Combat Fitness Test or by participating in one of the largest fitness competitions around the globe. One Colorado-based soldier walked away with a pageant crown, while another soldier was promoted to his 16th rank in 35 years.


Spc. Ezra Maes and his two armor crew teammates were jolted awake by their M1A2 Abrams tank as it rolled downhill at nearly 90 mph with them inside. The sheer force of the vehicle hitting an embankment threw Maes from his position, and his right leg was immediately pinned down by the vehicle's turret gear.

Recognizing that his teammates needed help, Maes "pushed and pulled" at his pinned appendage until he felt a sharp tear. With his leg removed, he quickly applied a tourniquet. At the same time, the tank's gunner, Sgt. Aechere Crump, realized their communications were inoperable as she tried to radio in for support.

It was around that moment that Maes' phone rang. With one leg cut and the other broken, Crump retrieved the cellular device and tossed it to Maes. He swiftly unlocked his phone and sent a text message to a friend -- help was on its way.


First Lt. Angela May DiMattia was the first active-duty soldier to win the title of Ms. Colorado after competing in a "United States of America Pageant" in March.

As a first-time competitor, DiMattia was determined to use the national competition to highlight on-post charities and help empower young women. Winning the completion landed her a financial contribution to a charity of her choice.

At the time, DiMattia was serving as the Family Readiness Leader for the 52nd Brigade Engineer Battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado. Through it all, DiMattia attributes her success to her soldier teammates, command, family and loved ones, who all provided their care and support.


President Donald Trump and Army leaders recognized three soldiers for their heroic and life-saving actions during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Travis W. Atkins, a 10th Mountain Division squad leader, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in March. While in Iraq, Atkins saved three soldiers' lives by wrapping his arms and body around a suicide bomber. His son, Trevor Oliver, had just turned 11 when his father passed. At 22, Oliver attended the White House ceremony to accept the award on his father's behalf.

Staff Sgt. David Bellavia was recognized in June for his heroic actions Nov. 10, 2004. As a squad leader during the second battle of Fallujah, Bellavia repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to help defend his team and their position. He is the first living recipient of the Iraq War to earn the Medal of Honor.

In October, Master Sgt. Matthew O. Williams received his medal for his actions April 6, 2008. Serving as a weapons sergeant with the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Williams helped stop the enemy from overrunning the team's position. Through the near-seven-hour operation, Williams moved around the battlespace and helped relocate four critically wounded for medical evacuation.


As the force transitions to the Army Combat Fitness Test, a handful of soldiers came close to, or achieved, a perfect PT score.

In June, Spc. Ryan Sowder, assigned to the 2112th Transportation Company out of Burlington, Kentucky, scored a 597 out of a possible 600 points. In August, Sowder pitted himself against some of the fittest people on the planet during the 2019 CrossFit Games in Madison, Wisconsin. He placed 30th overall in the competition.

A month later, Maj. Timothy Cox, a 22nd Chemical Battalion executive officer at Fort Bliss, Texas, was the first soldier to record a perfect score. After scoring a 587 during his initial test in December 2018, Cox spent the next six months training before maxing out his ACFT.

Later in the year, Spc. Juan Gonzalez, with the 32nd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Drum, New York, was the second soldier to achieve a perfect ACFT score. Additionally, Spc. Benjamin Ritchie was the first soldier in Basic Combat Training to max the new fitness test.


Capt. Chandler Smith, an armor officer and member of the Army Warrior Fitness Team, and Lt. Col Anthony Kurz, a Special Forces officer assigned to the Asymmetric Warfare Group at Fort Meade, Maryland, recently participated in the 2019 CrossFit games along with Sowder.

As a former wrestler and West Point cadet, Smith continues to leverage his athletic talent to be a positive example for all of his peers and teammates. During the grueling four-day event, Smith placed 15th overall, while seizing the opportunity to share his Army story at one of the largest fitness competitions in the world.

Dealing with a slight injury during the games, Kurz placed 9th overall in the 40-44-year-old men's master competition bracket. At the start of the games, Kurz proudly displayed his Special Forces flag as a nod to the community. He was proud of his overall performance and said he looks forward to returning to Madison in the future.

Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Zayas and other members of the Warrior Fitness Team attended the games to show support for their soldier teammates and engaged with the broader fitness community.

Zayas, a detentions NCO, recently moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to join the fitness team. Determined to make the CrossFit games in the future, Zayas continues to put countless hours into his fitness and nutrition routine to one day reach his goal.


In June, then-Colonel Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of operations, G-3, with Army Cyber Command, was promoted to brigadier general, his 16th rank held throughout his 35-year career.

During the early years of his career, Rey excelled as a member of the Army special operations community. He was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant first class and then transitioned into the warrant officer corps.

Rey's leadership talent motivated him to become an officer. As a warrant officer 2, Rey transitioned to officer candidate school, continuing his career path as a second lieutenant. Then spent the next 23 years moving through the ranks.


Maj. Karl D. Buckingham, a Command and General Staff Officer's Course student, was busy working out in the gym of his apartment building in Kansas City when someone ran in yelling for help. Someone had just been shot.

In response, Buckingham moved to the front of the building to find three men on the ground with serious injuries. Garnering support from another person, Buckingham leveraged his Army training and provided first aid to one of the victims until emergency responders arrived. For his actions in February, Buckingham command recommended him for a Soldier's Medal.


Spc. Daryn Colledge, a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter repairer with the Idaho National Guard, is a former NFL offensive lineman that joined the Army in 2016.

He started his career with the Green Bay Packers and helped the team to a Super Bowl victory in 2010. He later played for the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins before retiring from the league.

Determined to serve his country, Colledge enlisted in the Guard and later volunteered for a deployment with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. While in Afghanistan, Colledge was assigned to a medical evacuation crew -- a mission that provides life-saving support to patients.


Carly Schroeder, former Lizzy McGuire and General Hospital actress, traded in her previous life to become a soldier. In June, she graduated Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

During her time in BCT, Schroeder chose to keep her life as an actress a secret, fearing that people would treat or see her differently. While word eventually spread about her previous career, she became close with her teammates, developing several lasting friendships.


James and Laura Richardson have spent more than three decades adapting to new assignments and deployments. With both reaching the rank of lieutenant general, the Richardson family had their share of challenges as a dual military couple.

During permanent changes of station, the couple learned to be proactive by researching their new installations and starting their house hunting and childcare search as early as possible. Both of them relied on other military families and other Army resources to weather the storms.

The Richardsons shared secrets of their success and said the Army is currently making changes to its Soldier and Family Readiness Groups. They said the SFRG is a vital resource, providing soldiers with command information and them with available services.

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