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Local Marine awarded the Purple Heart following injury in Afghanistan
MARCH 28, 2011
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By Kristen Miller
News Editor

COKATO, MN – Earning a Purple Heart wasn’t something Gunnery Sergeant Matt Lehto, 37, of Cokato, had intended to do during his 19 years in the US Marine Corp.

“It wasn’t on my bucket list,” Lehto said, which is also what he told Lt. Col. Chris Busch, who presented him with the Purple Heart March 6.

“I would rather have come home without one,” said Lehto, who is in charge of the explosive ordnance disposal team.

Lehto was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, having served two tours in Iraq, with five deployments total for his military career.

Last July, Lehto returned to Camp Pendleton in southern California to train for Afghanistan. Four months later, he was deployed to the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

Lehto’s primary job there was clearing “the battlefield” of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Unlike what is portrayed in the Academy Award-winning movie “The Hurt Locker,” Lehto didn’t walk around in a large and bulky protective bomb suit.

“They are too heavy,” Lehto said, explaining the 70-pound suits not only slow down the clearing process, but they are also very hard to walk in, since most of their searches are done on foot. The bomb suits also get way too hot, especially in the deserts of Iraq, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees, Lehto said.

Instead, the typical gear worn in his occupation is a lighter protective flack jacket or a scalable plate carrier and helmet, Lehto explained.

On the day he was injured, Dec. 29, 2010, at roughly 3 p.m., Lehto was out clearing IEDs on foot with another soldier.

“It was late morning when we went out. We found a couple IEDs and cleared them,” Lehto said.

“We were moving down to another spot when I stepped on an IED,” he said. “I suspected something was there, but I couldn’t find it.”

Detecting for IEDs can be done either mechanically or visually, according to Lehto, explaining there are certain indicators he looks for. Sometimes, it’s just a “gut feeling,” he said.

Oftentimes, it’s thinking like the enemy.

“It’s a game of chess,” he said.

One also needs to know how the IEDs are built in order to take them apart.

“It’s all about how fast you can identify what you have, and how long it takes to disarm it,” Lehto said.

He didn’t see the IED that was hidden in the dirt when all of sudden, “it went boom.”

Lehto never lost consciousness. He remembers the moment when he was hit, and being covered in dust and dirt.

After a short time, Lehto tried standing, only to realize he couldn’t bear any weight on his leg.

When help came, a Navy medic helped him take his boot off and he wiggled his toes, a clear indication that everything was working properly, but that there was likely a break somewhere. He was then medevaced to an Army field hospital for initial evaluation.

Lehto’s injuries turned out to be a pilon fracture to his right ankle. Basically, his shinbone or tibia was broken into about 10 pieces.

“It wasn’t a clean break, but it wasn’t a shatter,” Lehto said.

After receiving a number of tests, including a CT Scan to determine if there was brain hemorrhaging and an ultrasound to look for internal injuries, Lehto was cleared and eventually flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. He received surgery Jan. 14 in Portsmouth, VA, which included adding a plate and several screws.

Lehto had what is considered a blast injury, which is caused by the overpressure that is created when explosives are detonated, he explained.

Unlike many IEDs, this particular bomb didn’t have any shrapnel, preventing even further injury.

Lucky to be alive, Lehto explained that he has known soldiers who have been hit and came out unscathed, while others have been killed or have lost limbs.

“The injuries are basically what I have, to death,” Lehto said, sharing that a buddy of his lost both legs and a hand doing the same job a day prior.

More than a month after surgery, Lehto returned home to Cokato for rest and recovery. He started walking and putting some weight on his leg March 7.

By the time the paper is published, Lehto will have returned to Portsmouth, VA for further evaluation. It is still undetermined as to what his limitations are going to be due to his injury.

As a drilling reservist, Lehto’s contract with the Marine Corp runs out in December, at which time he will make a decision whether to re-enlist based on what his medical limitations are.

“I don’t want to be a liability to someone,” Lehto said.

Becoming a Purple Heart recipient

The Purple Heart, or Badge of Military Merit, dates back to 1782, with General George Washington, as a way to recognize a soldier’s merit during the American Revolution.

After undergoing changes to the criteria and expanding it to the other branches of the military (at first, the badge was exclusive to the Army Air Corps.), the Purple Heart is now awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded, as part of their military service.

On March 6, Lehto received the Purple Heart at Marine Wing Support Squadron 471 in Minneapolis.

Lehto is the only Marine out of the 300 reservists in his unit out of Minnesota to receive a Purple Heart.

Though honored, the Purple Heart isn’t something service members strive for, he said.

“I would rather have come home without one,” Lehto said. He would have liked to have completed his seven months in Afghanistan with his team. Instead, he only made it a third of the way through before becoming injured.

Thankful for support

There tends to be a lot of stress put on military families, and support from close family members, friends, and the community become even more important.

“A lot of people don’t realize the support aspect that’s needed,” Lehto said, who is the father of 9-year-old daughter, Courtney, and 10-month-old son, E.L. Jack.

“There is an immense amount of stress and anxiety [put on military spouses],” Lehto said, explaining that there was a two-week time frame from when he was injured to the time he was reunited back in the states with his wife, Heidi.

“We are thankful for the community. It has shown great support now and in previous deployments,” Lehto said.

For Lehto, the last few months have been very humbling, having seen guys who have lost their limbs or are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“I feel very fortunate,” Lehto said. “I have counted my blessings a million times over.”

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