An Army & Air Force Exchange Service employee, Sarah Latona, has been awarded the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the military's Purple Heart. It's the first such award in the exchange service's 109-year history.
Latona was driving a bus for the exchange service on Oct. 9, 2004, south of Baghdad when a roadside explosion ripped apart a military convoy. Her bus was destroyed, and she was wounded by shrapnel that hit her in an eye, face, right arm, right leg and backside.
Col. Charles Shugg, 366th Fighter Wing commander at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, presented the Defense of Freedom Medal to Latona at a March 24 ceremony. The medal honors civilian employees of the Defense Department injured or killed in the line of duty.
Latona, 42, said doctors expect her to be fully recovered in two years. She will receive a cornea transplant in June. In a telephone interview, she said she has "no second thoughts" about volunteering to serve in Kuwait or Iraq, where she spent 15 months driving dangerous roads to help stock exchange stores with magazines, videos, chips, candy and personal items that troops can buy.
On the night of Oct. 9, Latona went to a staging yard at Camp Victory in Baghdad, took a shower and loaded her bus with checks and credit card receipts for processing in Kuwait. She was headed for Scania, Iraq, a fueling station, when an explosion rocked her bus in the Iraqi desert. On board the bus with her were three military personnel.
She tried to keep her bus going, but it stopped after about 150 feet. Although three trucks behind her in the convoy were engulfed in flames, everyone survived. When she was hit by the explosion, she said, "I didn't register any of the pain. . . . I went into the escape mode, kept trying to drive. . . . I didn't realize I had lost sight in my eye."
She was evacuated by helicopter and taken to a hospital in Baghdad and then sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. She is back at Mountain Home, near Boise, working at the exchange's military clothing sales store.
Latona said she volunteered for service in Kuwait and Iraq because she "wanted to help out" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Providing merchandise and services to the troops, she said, is a rewarding experience. "We're kind of like their surrogate parents -- a lot of us are older than the younger troops," she said. "They think it's nice to see a friendly face from home. . . . They make me feel awfully special."
About two-thirds of the revenue generated by exchanges goes to fund military morale, welfare and recreation programs, Judd Anstey, a spokesman for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, said. The most recent tally showed 31 exchanges operating in Iraq, he said.
Latona said she was "kind of amazed" when told that she would be honored with a medal for her service. "I'm just thankful that all my guardian angels were on my side and protecting me," she said. "I guess I'm just an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things."
Irwin Charles Cohen, a judge on the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, retired March 31 after 40 years of service.
Richard F. Mercier, senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, retired April 3 after 35 years of federal service. He was one of the senior executives from the Customs Service who helped create ICE in March 2003. He has worked in various positions, including as a Customs sky marshal and a special agent.
Edward J. Obloy, general counsel at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, retired March 18 after a 28-year career at the agency. At his retirement ceremony, Obloy was presented with the agency's Distinguished Civilian Service Award for helping create the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, a predecessor of the current agency, and for his management of legal programs in support of the war on terrorism.
Shirley Williams, an administrative assistant at the Office of Personnel Management, retired March 31 after 27 years of service. She was often the first person that telephone callers seeking assistance from OPM spoke with at the agency.