(Town Crier photo/Nan Snider)
Army Specialist Zachary Ridge returned to Lake City from Iraq last month as a hometown hero. His courage under fire and his ability to take charge and lead soldiers in combat have earned him the prestigious Bronze Star Medal with valor.
Ridge's family did not need a medal to remind them that he was an exceptional young man, but found great pride in the significance of the presentation.
Family and friends welcomed him at the door anxious to hear about his life away from them. Hugs abounded and conversation flowed freely. When inquiry was made about the medal, Ridge modestly showed them a picture of the Bronze Star and the letter that accompanied it. The presentation took place Dec. 20, 2007 at Ft. Carson in Colorado.
At the award ceremony Ridge was commended for his exceptional valor in the face of the enemy at a combat outpost in Ar Ramadi, Iraq on Jan. 9, 2007.
At the time Ridge was serving as a fire team leader at a combat outpost in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Ridge's squad and another squad from the 3rd Platoon, Able Company, came under heavy machine gun fire. Ridge and the 1st Squad bounded through the enemy contact to a nearby building and learned that a Ming Sun, a fellow soldier in the 2nd Squad had been killed. After attempting to move the casualty the soldiers began receiving direct fire again. Ridge was on the rooftop of an adjacent building and stood up to face the enemy in hopes of suppressing the enemy machine gun. Heavy fire pinned Ridge down, yet he managed to emerge and eventually suppress volume of fire with his M249 gun. Even though he was only a rifleman, he managed to take charge of the situation. Ridge's bravery under fire allowed the casualty to be evacuated and the platoon leader and 2nd squad to get off the exposed rooftop. Ridge's actions saved many lives that day.
Ridge is a 2005 graduate of Riverside High School in Lake City. His roots run generations deep in the rich soil surrounding his hometown. Not wanting to be a farmer himself, he chose to join the Army after graduation.
"I wasn't doing anything with my life and just decided to join the Army," Ridge said. "My brother Josh (Ridge) joined in 2004 and went to Iraq. I was impressed with what he was doing, and his dedication. I felt it was a good thing to serve our country, and I wanted to be a part of it."
Ridge was sent to Ft. Benning, Ga., for his basic fifteen weeks training, then on to Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo. He went to Iraq in October 2006.
"Ar Ramadi is in the Ramadiyah Providence about 70 miles west of Baghdad on the Euphrates River," Ridge said. "With the river and the sand and abandoned buildings it looks like the wild west that I saw in old western movies. We have to walk and sit around look for insurgents to appear. We are living targets. We can't find the insurgents until they fire at us. We have a lot of time to sit and think. I often think of home and my days spent playing basketball, and going hunting, fishing and swimming. When I was hunting with my Dad I never knew that I would one day be using a M249 automatic machine gun that shoots 100 rounds in five seconds.
"Being in Iraq was hectic at first and we didn't get much sleep. We always had to be on guard. The Ar Ramadi people helped us, as they wanted the insurgents out of their town also. We are seeing now that they are getting organized and beginning to police themselves, which is what we have wanted them to do. They are slowly becoming self-sufficient, with our help."
Ridge's time back in Lake City has developed into a big party atmosphere, with friends and relatives coming in and out of his home. His parents, Deanna and Mark Ridge, have been on hand to welcome everyone and keep plenty of food prepared.
Ridge is engaged to his high school sweetheart, Jordan Davis, and they are making plans to marry later this year. Davis is currently a student at Arkansas Northeast College, in Blytheville.
Ridge has re-upped to stay in the Army until 2012 and then plans to pursue a college degree himself.
"It is always hard to say goodbye to people you love," Ridge said. "But I have a job to do, and I'm committed to it."
His grandparents are Jim and Evelyn Bowman and Bob and Berdine Ridge. He had a great welcome home in December but a harder goodbye this past Tuesday, Jan. 22, as he returned to Colorado.
"I want to tell everyone how much the letters and packages mean to soldiers in Iraq," Ridge said. "There are more than 12 boys from Lake City over there now. We get boxes from our church and friends and find the most thoughtful things inside. It is just like opening a nice gift……only far far away.
"As I travel I find the American people appreciate the military men and women, as strangers often stop us to say thank you. That means so much. My Great Uncle Max (South) didn't get that kind of reception 40 years ago, when he came back from Vietnam with two Purple Heart metals. America has learned from its mistakes."
When Ridge entered Lake City last month the first thing he noticed was the opening of the four-lane highway and how good everything smelled.
"Home has that fresh air smell," Ridge said. "Then there are those great smells of home cooking. It seems like my senses have become keener since I have been gone. I appreciate simple things much more now."
Simple things like smells, smiles, and acts of love seem to be engraved in Ridge's mind. He also never forgets his fallen comrade, Ming Sun. Ridge wears an engraved metal bracelet bearing Sun's name, on his right wrist, and strokes it gently as he speaks.