Friday, May 6, 2011

Wounded soldier returns to Iraq

Pfc. Steven Cornford awarded Silver Star in 2007

Express Staff Writer

Decorated Iraq War veteran Steven Cornford found support at Higher Ground, a family and sports therapy program based in Ketchum.

Iraq War veteran and Hailey resident Steven Cornford returned two weeks ago to the scene of an intense battle in 2007 in Iraq where he fought bravely, at great risk to his own life, to defend a mortally wounded senior officer and defeat an enemy position.

Cornford, who was 18 at the time of the battle, was awarded a Silver Star for "exceptionally valorous conduct."

His goal in returning to Iraq was to confront memories that led to his struggles with post- traumatic-stress disorder.

"It went pretty well," said Cornford after returning to Hailey on Tuesday. "I was able to let some things go."

While in Iraq, Cornford spoke to active-duty troops about the difficult process of coming to terms with the psychological traumas of war.

"I told them to get help if you need it, to take care of each other if you know your buddy is having trouble," he said.

Cornford first learned of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 while in a seventh-grade English class at his Mountain Home elementary school.

"I was really mad," said Cornford, who started the process of joining the Army when he was 16.

About three years later, after 10 months in Iraq, Cornford was a seasoned battle veteran. He had conducted numerous house-to-house raids, helped train Iraqi police forces and narrowly escaped death from 14 improvised-explosive-device detonations while on patrol.

Cornford was in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Dec. 30, 2006, the day the Iraqi Special Tribunal hanged the former dictator after convicting him of crimes against humanity.


"We got in a firefight that day," he said.

While pursuing insurgents on April 30, 2007, in Balad, Iraq, Cornford's platoon was attacked from a distance of 15 meters by grenades and machinegun fire from a defended enemy position.

According to an Army report on the incident, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in the initial attack. With his right arm rendered useless by a machinegun round, Cornford crawled to the aid of his lieutenant, defending them both from a pinned-down position, while trying to keep his commander alive. Cornford and his platoon leader eventually overran the enemy position with small arms fire and grenades. The lieutenant later died later from his wounds.

The report states: "Private First Class Cornford's outstanding dedication to duty while wounded and under enemy fire contributed to the overwhelming success of the command's mission. His actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military heroism and reflect great credit upon himself, the Warhorse Battalion, Task Force PANTHER, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army."

Despite the military commendation, Cornford found civilian life challenging back in Mountain Home, Idaho, where he lived until recently moving to Hailey with his wife and infant daughter. He relied heavily on pain medications and did some crazy things on a motorcycle, he said.

"I struggled a lot. I did stupid stuff," he said. "I was looking for the adrenaline rush I got every day in Iraq. I was trying to numb the pain."

Cornford eventually found his way to Higher Ground, a rehabilitation program affiliated with Ketchum-based Sun Valley Adaptive Sports.

Higher Ground uses sports, family and coping therapies to rehabilitate men and women who have been severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. It specializes in serving those with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic-stress disorder, blindness, spinal cord injuries and amputations.

Cornford's return to Balad, Iraq, was related to a form of psychological therapy practiced at Higher Ground, one in which soldiers reintegrate memories of past trauma to release psychological pain.

"I was able to let go of blaming myself for my lieutenant's death," he said.

Thanks to Higher Ground, and Sun Valley Co., Cornford found a new and safer way to get an adrenaline rush this winter.

"Snowboarding," he said.

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