OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A soldier with Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade who was seriously injured while trying to protect others when a massive tornado struck Moore in May was honored Tuesday with one of the state's highest military decorations.
Sgt. E.H. Pittman received the Oklahoma Star of Valor medal for what Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, the state's adjutant general, described as his "selfless and heroic actions" as members of the state Legislature convened a joint session to honor members of the Oklahoma National Guard.
Pittman, 30, had recently returned from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan with the National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and was working at a Moore convenience store when the tornado tore through an area south of Oklahoma City on May 20.
Pittman and a co-worker rushed some customers into a bathroom as the tornado struck, demolishing the store and killing three people including a woman and her infant son. Pittman suffered serious wounds including a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed.
In awarding the medal, Deering praised Pittman's efforts to use his body as a shield to save civilians who were trapped in the store as the storm approached. State lawmakers stood and applauded as the medal was presented.
Pittman did not speak during the ceremony, but has said in the past that he hopes to regain the use of his legs. Although doctors say he is paralyzed he has some feeling in his legs, which makes him hopeful he'll walk again.
"After they pulled me out and set me on the concrete, (they) told me I stood up and took a couple of steps and sat down and said, I can't feel my legs," Pittman told television station KFOR in July. "I don't remember that. I guess that was my last three steps right there."
The Star of Valor can be awarded to any eligible member of the Oklahoma National Guard who performs an act of heroism involving the risk of life or limb to protect the life of another under conditions other than military combat.
During the ceremony, Deering said more than 9,000 men and women are currently members of the state's Army and Air National Guard.
"We are prepared, we are ready and we are willing to do whatever our state and nation asks us to do," Deering said.
The annual observance pays tribute to the state's National Guard and soldiers with the former 45th Infantry Division, especially during World War II and the Korean War.
The 45th Infantry Division was formed shortly after World War I and was initially composed of National Guard units from Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The division was among the first four divisions called to duty in World War II. In 511 combat days, the 45th had fought through four countries from Sicily to the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.
The division sustained over 20,000 combat casualties, making it one of the five hardest-hit divisions in the Army. Eight members of the division received the nation's highest honor for bravery, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In September 1946, the 45th was reorganized into an all Oklahoma division. Four years later, it was again called to duty in Korea, the first National Guard division to enter combat. Soldiers of the 45th served in four battle campaigns during 429 days of combat. In February 1968, the 45th Infantry Division was deactivated and replaced with three brigade-sized elements, which compose the Oklahoma National Guard.