The 26-year-old Army sergeant was twice wounded last year leading a squad in the remote East Paktika province, most gravely when he opened a door wired to a bomb in December.
The explosion sent him to several hospitals for treatment and ultimately to Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center’s Warrior Transition Battalion. On Friday in the Fort Gordon hospital’s auditorium he received a Purple Heart.
“He has been a fantastic and inspirational leader,” said Col. Christopher Castle, the commanding officer of Eisenhower, before a packed auditorium gave Caviness long and hearty applause.
After shaking hands with nearly every soldier present, Caviness said there was a point right after he was flown out of Afghanistan to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany when he wasn’t sure he would survive. It was a sobering moment for the Helena, Ala., native, who had a wife and infant daughter waiting for him at home. Caviness has no regrets about his decision to join the Army in 2008.
“I was sick of sitting around and hearing about (the war),” Caviness said. “I wanted to be in it.”
The Purple Heart is the oldest military decoration still in use and was first championed by Gen. George Washington as a way to honor the common soldier. It is awarded exclusively to American service members wounded by “an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy.”
Caviness’ path to the medal started in 2008 when he was deployed to Iraq, where he served as a driver and gunner. He was promoted to sergeant before his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011.Castle said that a promotion to sergeant in just over two years is remarkable and speaks highly of Caviness’ character.
Caviness was first injured in Afghanistan on Aug. 23, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near him and his mortarman. The sergeant sustained a concussion, but he refused assignment to a traumatic brain injury clinic for treatment.
“I couldn’t leave my men. We had trained together for a year,” Caviness said Friday.
There was some joking about not standing too close to their noncommissioned officer, but Caviness’ soldiers followed him Dec. 9 on a mission to clear a village. While setting up a position on a hill overlooking the town, Caviness opened the door to a building and set off an improved explosive device. He suffered shrapnel wounds and was temporarily paralyzed by the blast.
Today, Caviness is walking but still recuperating from his injuries and waiting for a determination on his fitness for duty. In the meantime, he is enrolled in criminal justice classes for a possible career in law enforcement after his discharge.
He cautions service members still deployed to be careful.
“We’re supporting you back home,” Caviness said.