The N.C. National Guard, which has participated in every overseas conflict in the nation’s history, celebrated its 354th birthday Friday by honoring three of its members for heroism at home.
At a ceremony at the Joint Force Headquarters in Raleigh, Maj. Gen. Gregory A. Lusk, adjutant general of the N.C. National Guard, pinned the newly minted NCNG Soldier and Airman Medal on three citizen-soldiers whose quick decisions may have saved lives.
One was a soldier who returned fire when armed intruders broke down the door of her Charlotte home while she was inside with her infant son. Spec. Semantha Bunce, a medic in the National Guard’s 105th Engineer Battalion who is training to be a dental hygienist in civilian life, was snuggling with 4-month-old Bentley the morning of Nov. 3, 2015, when her husband left for work. A few minutes later, she said, the doorbell rang.
“I ignored it,” she said, but when it rang several more times in quick succession she got up to look out a window. As she did, intruders kicked open the door.
Bunce said she turned around and picked up her husband’s pistol – which he normally takes with him but had left behind that day – and opened her bedroom door to come face to face with a surprised burglar.
He turned and ran, she said, and as she approached the stairs, she heard a gunshot and fell. Thinking she had tripped and accidentally fired the pistol, she got up. But she had already been shot once, between the ribs, and as she raised her gun, was hit again. She started firing back.
Both men fled, and Bunce went to check on her son, who was fine. She called for help.
“All I was doing was trying not to die,” the 22-year-old Bunce said after Friday’s ceremony, where she heard the stories of two other medal recipients. “They’re the real heroes.”
Spec. Robert Shook of Pine Bluff had just deployed to Wilson County with the 151st Engineer Company during the flooding that followed Hurricane Matthew in October when his team was dispatched on a call about a nurse who had not made it home after the end of her shift. Shook, who had received swiftwater rescue training with the National Guard last summer, went in a Humvee, coordinating with another part of the search team in a boat, to look in an area where it was feared the nurse had driven through rushing water.
Around 3 a.m., after getting a report that someone heard cries for help, Shook had his team shut off the Humvee. He climbed on top of the vehicle to listen and pry open the darkness with a flashlight.
“”That’s when I saw her,” Shook said, and threw a line with a float on the end. “But I came up about a foot short.”
Another rescuer threw a line, and the nurse, cold and exhausted after hours in the water, was able to grab on, but lost her hold as they tried to haul her in.
“So I jumped in and swam out to her,” Shook said, put his arms under hers and leaned back in the cold water to support them both on his life vest. Unable to swim against the powerful current, he just held on, he said, until a rescue boat arrived and pulled the woman out.
Shook, 24, who works in his family’s landscaping business in Moore County, said he went out on that call with one thought: We have to find her.
Shook said he was determined that the team would find the nurse – or her body, if that’s how things turned out – and finding her alive was the greatest feeling.
“We struck oil and gold at the same time and there’s diamonds in the oil,” he said. Looking back on it, he said, “I’m glad I was there. I’m glad I had that training.”
Sgt. Charles Roper, 36, of Morganton, went to work full time for the the N.C. National Guard’s 210th Military Police unit 15 years ago “because I wanted to do something that everybody else ain’t doing.”
Before joining the guard, Roper was a public safety officer in Morganton which trains its officers in both police and fire response. In that job, Roper said he had pulled people out of burning cars and houses.
Roper was driving to pick up his kids at a ball park in Morganton in February when he noticed a small plane flying erratically, grazing the treetops. When it crashed in the woods and caught fire, he headed off road to where he had seen it go down. He drove as close as possible, then ran and pulled the unconscious pilot out of the wreckage, which had already started to burn.
“I just reached in and grabbed his five-point harness, which was just like the ones on the equipment we use,” Roper said. “I got hold of him and pulled him out, and that’s when he started moaning and groaning and I realized he was alive.”
Roper got the man, who was in his 80s, clear of the wreck, and a neighbor ran over to help move him farther back. When a tanker truck from the fire department arrived a few minutes later, the driver told Roper to grab a hose and help put out the flames on the plane.
Roper, who has deployed twice to Iraq with the National Guard, said anybody who saw a plane crash right in front of them would run to help.
“I hope somebody would do the same thing for me if I ever needed it,” he said.
In presenting the awards, Lusk said the soldiers’ instincts and training distinguish them from others who are witness to emergency situations. Where others might pull out a phone and take a photo, Lusk said, members of the National Guard do what is necessary to save lives.
“Things happen,” Lusk said, over which people have little control. What they can control is the way they respond, and Lusk said these soldiers did so in a way that honors three and a half centuries of public service.