York, PA - During six months in Iraq, Darren Lunsford never stormed a beach, liberated a town or captured an enemy single-handedly.
He enlisted in the Air Force in 2004 to help pay for college, but wound up among the thousands of U.S. service members riding on supply convoys across the Iraqi highway system. Risking your life to haul DVDs and iPods was not the stuff of Jerry Bruckheimer -- in fact, some chided Lunsford and his comrades as the "Chair Force."
It was so thankless that when the job left him wounded, he never thought to seek the U.S. government's medal for those injured in combat.
On June 7, seven years later, the government finally pinned a purple heart to Lunsford's chest.
During the ceremony, members of Lunsford's family heard his story for the first time.
It wasn't a story of gallantry. Rather, Lunsford had lived the day-in-day-out drudgery of war, and had thrown his life off course in the bargain.
Just a number
When he graduated from Dover High School in 2003, wound up working at Maple Press, but the monotony of the job proved to him he needed a college education. His uncle, who had served in the Air Force, recommended joining.
Before his basic training, recruiters told Lunsford he could choose from any of a number of jobs. After basics, an officer told him to pick. The war in Iraq had limited his options. "You can be a cop or a truck driver," he said he was told.
Lunsford opted for truck driver because the training was shorter. Then the war changed things again -- some truck drivers had to be trained as gunners. They picked him.
"I was like, 'Oh my god, don't wanna do this job,'" he said. "I just wanted to get out of Dover, this small town, travel and get some college. There I was, Air Force gunner on a lead vehicle."
The job might have been as monotonous as Maple Press if people weren't constantly trying to kill him. Members of all branches of the military were stationed at the same place. Some service members from other branches slept in tents. Lunsford slept in a building with a marginally functional air conditioner.
Lunsford rode a supply truck clinging to a .50-caliber machine gun and scanned the roadside.
Bombs were everywhere. Once, insurgents packed a donkey carcass with explosives. Often, they were triggered by green outdoor extension cords split down the middle and abraded so that when a tire rolled across them, one half folded over on one other, completing a circuit and setting off the charge.
"It feels like it's inside your body," Lunsford said. "You're not ready for it. It's so loud."
Lunsford's convoy was hit 13 times by IEDs in six months. Lunsford always rode shotgun in the lead truck, and that was hit five times.
"I just want to come home to my family," he'd pray. "I just want to be able to get married. And have my own family and a piece of land. I'll be happy. I don't need nothing else."
Sometimes, Lunsford delivered fuel in big tanker trucks. Sometimes the cargo was locked and sealed and he didn't know what it was. Often, it was DVDs or video games -- stuff to improve morale.
"It made you feel like you just weren't a valuable thing," he said. "You're just a number."
Lunsford doesn't remember the explosion. It hit on Nov. 15, 2005 and knocked him unconscious. A medic checked him out. He was bleeding from the ear. They thought he might have concussion and a punctured ear drum.
Then, on the return trip the following day, Lunsford's truck was hit again.
Multiple IEDs wrenched his back, leaving several disks herniated or bulging. The ear injury turned into a constant ringing noise in his head.
When he returned to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the nightmares started. He'd be captured or lost in the Iraqi desert running out of ammunition. Lunsford felt nervous in crowds and loud noises terrified him. Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Before he left Andrews, Lunsford had a job transporting dignitaries. Lt. General Frank Klotz struck up a conversation with Lunsford.
Klotz told Lunsford he should have been awarded a purple heart. Lunsford didn't know what to think. He'd been 20 years old, the bottom rung of the Air Force. A purple heart never occurred to him. It might have made advancement easier, Lunsford said.
Klotz helped get the paperwork pushed through, but in 2006 Lunsford was denied the medal.
"I figure if a general sends it and it gets denied, it's over," Lunsford said. "No big deal. At least I'm alive."
One day last week Lunsford had just mowed his lawn. Chances are, he'll mow it again in a matter of hours, regardless of whether his wife Brandy tells him it doesn't need it.
"I love it," he said Friday, sitting on a piece of patio furniture in his driveway. He is a slender, athletic man. Tattoos swirl his arms and cross his chest. A shy smile stamps his face as he shows off his yard.
It's all his -- the view across the forested hillsides that make up Dover Township. His 1-year-old son, Max, sometimes plays in the piles of mulch or brush. He planted a cherry tree behind the house. When it blossoms, it reminds he and Brandy of when they first dated while he was stationed at Andrews .
All of it -- the house, the yard and the family -- is an answer to his prayers when he feared for his life in the convoy.
The war "made me who I am," he said. "You go to the store and you walk down the cereal aisle and there's 500 different cereals. People don't appreciate that. You go to the meat section and you can pick a filet mignon ... you can get whatever you want here."
He enrolled at York College, where he hopes to obtain a degree in elementary education.
At a recent hearing regarding his medical benefits, someone asked if he'd received a purple heart since he'd been wounded in combat. Lunsford explained what had happened.
A few months went by. The day after his 27th birthday, the military called and told him they'd decided to award him the purple heart.
Lunsford didn't believe it. He asked the military to send him proof.
Someone scanned his certificate and emailed it.
"This is to certify," it read, "that the president of the United States of America authorized by order of General George Washington, August 7, 1782 has awarded THE PURPLE HEART to Senior Airman Darren R. Lunsford for wounds received in action 15 November 2005."
Lunsford wondered what the guys overseas who called him a member of the Chair Force might think. He imagined being able to show the medal to his son. Your dad did this, he'd say.
"You can tell people all these stories," Lunsford said. "But to actually have proof and recognition for the things you did. It kinda made it all worth your while and the hell you went through."
They held a ceremony for Lunsford at Andrews Air Force Base. The base commander described Lunsford's job and how he'd obtained his injury.
Brandy didn't know most of it. She wept.
"To know that he was out there like that. To hear what he did," she said. "He is a hero."
Read more about veterans and their stories at: www.americanhomecomings.com.