Eric Phinney, a former Monticello resident and Iraq war veteran, received a special military honor during a long-awaited presentation last week in St. Paul.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar proudly pinned a Purple Heart to Phinney’s suit coat lapel during a Sept. 27 ceremony at the Minnesota Veterans Memorial.
Phinney sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while serving with the Minnesota National Guard in 2007.
Last Thursday’s ceremony wasn’t what he expected.
“I wasn’t expecting the media,” Phinney said in a phone interview. Members of his former military unit also attended the morning ceremony on the capitol mall.
Phinney grew up in Maple Grove, where his father was a deputy fire chief. “I became a firefighter as well for a short time, for about 2 1/2 years,” Phinney said.
In 2004, Phinney made the move to Monticello, where he served and eventually deployed with the Minnesota National Guard’s 257th Military Police Company.
“I love Monticello. It’s a great community,” he said. “The day I got hurt in Iraq, my ex-wife was playing volleyball at Hawk’s Sports Bar & Grill in Monticello.”
Sgt. Phinney’s unit had just left Camp Adder in south-central Iraq on a school supply mission when a buried improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated.
“We’d left the base as part of joint operation with the Australians, and we had a trailer full of school supplies and kids’ toys,” he said. “We were off to a location just a few clicks [miles] outside the camp gate and were coming up to a big intersection when the IED went off, cutting our trucks and the Australians in half.”
Phinney was a gunner in the lead convoy truck. The explosion threw him around a little bit, and when he popped back up, he didn’t think anything was wrong.
“I remember my vision was blurry,” he said. “After our other three trucks had come through the explosion cloud, we were given a command to go back and secure the Australians. We self-evacuated back to our own gate, and it was about 30 or 40 minutes after the explosion occurred I noticed something was up.”
Phinney noticed he had blurred vision after the IED attack. He was checked out at the base medical clinic, he said, but remained at Camp Adder to recover.
“It wasn’t until I got home and out and went to the V.A. hospital and they did a bunch of tests, that it came back as TBI,” he said. “In Iraq, it was also diagnosed as a brain injury. I notice a lot of difference with reading comprehension and headaches.”
Phineny said the V.A. is his primary health care provider.
According to Klobuchar, at the time Phinney was injured, TBIs did not qualify for the Purple Heart.
That changed on April 28, 2011, Klobuchar said, when the Pentagon changed its criteria and begin awarding Purple Hearts to veterans who had suffered TBIs.
“We actually got this done in just a few months,” she said.
During last Thursday’s Purple Heart presentation ceremony, Klobuchar praised Phinney for his “incredible bravery and service,” and efforts during the attack.
Phinney said he had previously met Klobuchar during a 34th Infantry Red Bulls deployment ceremony several years ago that occurred during a pouring rain.
After leaving military service, Phinney remembered the personal connection he had made while getting ready to move his family from Monticello to Texas.
During the past five years, Phinney said he knew there were people working on getting him the Purple Heart,
However, many months passed as he conducted on-and-off again conversations with his National Guard point of contact.
“About two months ago, we were getting ready to put our house up for sale and move to Texas, and I shot the senator an email,” he said. “About 2-1/2 weeks later, I got a phone call the Department of the U.S. Army had the physical paperwork in hand as well as the Purple Heart.”
Phinney said he was glad several members of his former unit were on hand for Thursday’s presentation.
“The one thing I told Sen. Klobuchar was that our team completed well over 300 combat missions in Iraq in 16 months and got very little recognition,” he said.
For example, the team’s medic, a St. Paul firefighter, was awarded the combat medic badge, an honor that’s only awarded for providing care while under fire. Phinney began his military career in 1995 at the U.S. Army’s Chemical School in Fort McClellan, Ala. After becoming a chemical specialist, he transferred to the 704th Chemical Company based in Arden Hills, where he served seven years, In 2001, he joined the 13th Psychological Operations (Psy-Op) Battalion.
Phinney graduated as a psy-ops specialist, and then deployed to Serbia, and was stationed with a Russian three-man psy-op team based in southern Serbia. “I was there nine months, came home, and got out of the military at that point,” he said. Phinney has two children from a previous marriage; his current spouse, who is from Holdingford, also served in Iraq with the National Guard.
“We weren’t married at the time, we just met there,” he said. “We went our separate ways, got home, and met months later. I have two kids in Texas who are age 7 and 10. My wife and I have a 4-year-old daughter.”
Phinney was on his way to pick up a moving truck when interviewed. He’s currently a full-time student, going to school on the G.I. Bill.
“I did work for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. I went back to school to study information technology, and I’m moving my family to Texas. I’ll be coming back to Minnesota and finishing up my education.”