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Class of 2000 WHS grad earns high military honors

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Matt Werner first enlisted in the Air Force hoping it was the military’s path of least resistance.

That did not prove to be the case for the Woodbury High School graduate — and he’s got the hardware to prove it.

Werner, a standout soccer player from the WHS Class of 2000, was recently awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan. The award, he explained, is an uncommon distinction — especially for a non-commissioned officer.

“The Air Force rarely hands these out,” said Werner, a staff sergeant.

He received the medal for his work on a 365-day tour in Afghanistan that began in July 2012. During the mission, Werner served at Forward Operating Base Lindsey near Kandahar, where he survived convoy attacks and flying bullets while leading training efforts for Afghani police as a weapons and munitions advisor.

In a nomination letter, Air Force Lt. Patrick O’Brien lauded Werner’s leadership and supervision of munitions deliveries to more than 23,000 patrolmen in the region.

“Staff Sgt. Werner’s distinctive accomplishments are in keeping with the highest honors and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan … and the United States Air Force,” O’Brien wrote.

The medal announcement came as a surprise, Werner said.

“It’s quite an honor to put on my uniform,” he said of the medal. “To me, I was just doing my job and making sure my guys got home safe.”

The award was presented to Werner on June 29 — more than 10 years after he enlisted.

Werner gravitated to the military after spending a couple years at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He enrolled exactly one year after 9/11 and was off to basic training two weeks later.

Werner’s job in the Air Force is ammunition and ordinance — “anything in the Air Force arsenal that goes ‘boom,’” he noted — which means everything from bullets to 2,000 bombs.

During his time, he has twice been attached to the army during deployments. On those missions, he serves as a technical expert to help fill needs when the army is stretched too thin, Werner explained.

The first attachment occurred in 2009, when he served a six-month tour in Kirkut, Iraq. There, he served on a base with a unit that primarily supplied jets.

The experience was during the military’s draw-down of troops in Iraq when the danger levels there were diminishing.

Werner would have no such safety in Afghanistan.

He learned in January 2012 that he would be leaving in four months for combat and survival training. His eventual destination: “very austere conditions” in Afghanistan, Werner recalled his initial orders stating.

“At the time, it was very vague,” he said.

Werner ended up at FOB Lindsey, where conditions were as billed. Hot meals? Yes. Safe drinking water and sewage systems?

“That’s a different story,” Werner said.

During his time there, he was part of a seven-man training team for the Afghan police. It was his responsibility to help get key deliveries — food, ammunition, uniforms — to soldiers in the region’s outlying stations. The effort required extensive planning, scheduling and coordinating, Werner said.

Though cultural differences posed the occasional frustration, he said his unit succeeded by keeping their eye on the ball.

“Our job was to offer our assistance and mentor them,” Werner said. “You want them to succeed in the end.”

And then there was the danger factor.

Werner’s tour occurred during a particularly threatening time for soldiers of his ilk; incidents involving insurgent Afghanis carrying out attacks against their American security trainers was spiking right when he was there.

“It was a little scary — made you on edge,” Werner said.

No matter how dangerous the situation was, he said he was careful not to express that when communicating with his parents, Jerry and Barb Werner, while they were back home in Woodbury.

They were fearful enough knowing that their son was in a war zone.

“Every day and every day and every day you think about it,” Jerry said. “It never goes away.”

Barb, his mother, said she even feels taller now that Matt is out of harm’s way. She said she spent the past year in a virtual recoil.

“That was where my concentration was, whether I realized it or not,” Barb said.

Matt now returns to a more peaceful setting: Arizona, where he will begin serving his next five-year enlistment at Luke Air Force Base.

“I’m glad to be home and in one piece,” Werner said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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