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Harrison Township — When Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Waters was in high school, he considered studying art in college, but he found the tuition too expensive.

Instead, he chose to enlist in the U.S. Army, following a long line of family members in the military. It’s a move that would take him on a journey to fight for his country, endure an enemy ambush in Afghanistan in 2008 and rise to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military award for extraordinary heroism.

“This is very humbling,” said Waters, 35, after receiving the medal Wednesday morning during a ceremony at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. The medal is second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Waters enlisted in the Army in May 2003 after high school and became a medic. It was one of the roles he could take because of color-deficient vision.  

"Medic sounded like fun," he said. 

His skills were put to the test on July 30, 2008, while deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Waters, then a specialist, said he remembers riding with his fellow soldiers that day, joking with the truck commander who was sitting in the front seat. 

“We were joking back and forth, and then I remember him screaming at me in pain ‘Doc! Doc! Doc!' in pain 'Get up! Get up! Get up!’ And that’s it,” Water recalled. “I remember trying to get the door of the truck open. I remember getting pulled out.”

Waters' convoy had been ambushed, their vehicle destroyed by an improvised explosive device. Waters regained consciousness to find Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shorter grabbing him, asking if he was alright.

“He turned my head and he goes ‘Holy (expletive). You’re head’s all messed up. OK, OK, OK.’ Then we got everybody out of the truck.”

He recalled a flight medic arriving and asking for the fourth casualty. 

“I was like I’m the fourth casualty, but I can’t leave 'cause there’s no other medic here,” he said. 

Waters ignored his injuries and stayed to help move the wounded soldiers while under intense enemy fire. He provided cover fire for the rest of the platoon and helped stabilize the soldiers. While under heavy fire, he returned to the destroyed vehicle to reengage the enemy.

The three fellow soldiers Waters helped are out of the Army and are doing well today, he said. They're married and some have kids. Waters anticipated they'd watch the ceremony on a livestream Wednesday.

Waters was previously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his actions. A Pentagon review board recently upgraded his award to the Distinguished Service Cross.

It was Waters’ skills and training that enabled him to maintain his composure to help save the lives of his fellow soldiers that day, said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, commanding general for U.S. Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

“People who don’t understand sacrifice or commitment to service may think Sgt. First Class Waters was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Muth said. “I believe he was at the right place at the right time. His decision to join the Army ensured he was right where he needed to be when he was needed by his soldiers.”

Waters was given time to recuperate but instead chose to return to work, said his mother, Debbie Waters. He was also deployed for a second time for Operation Enduring Freedom from August 2010 to August 2011.

“He took no time off,” she said. “He went right back to work. He said you’ve got to get back to it or you won’t go. You have to overcome that and just get right back on it."

Debbie Waters said she recalls when she got the call from her son that his convoy had hit an IED. He didn't say much.

“Every time I hear about the event, I hear new things,” she said. “When he called me after it happened. He said, ‘We hit an IED.’ That’s all he said. I knew nothing about what happened. I found out years later… We’re so proud.”

Both of Waters' parents served in the Air Force and his sister, Bethany Waters, is also a sergeant first class. They were among family at the ceremony Wednesday along with Waters' wife, Jill, and their three children, Oliver, 5, Cooper, 2, and Harper, 1 month.

Waters’ long list of awards include the Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Commendation Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Achievement Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Ribbon, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medical and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

Waters is an Army recruiter with the Eastpointe Recruiting Station, following a recruiting stint in Monroe. Muth said the Army is fortunate to have Waters as he's recruited 300 soldiers.

“Recruiting is the hardest job in the Army, and he is the type of soldier we need in our formation,” he said. “Humble, positive attitude, hardworking and ready for a new challenge.”

In addition to recruiting, Waters is studying advertising and marketing to earn his bachelor’s degree online from Grand Canyon University. He views art as a hobby now.

Waters said his experiences have helped to make him a successful recruiter.

“All of recruiting is about telling your Army story,” he said. “Making it relevant to people. There isn’t a large military presence here in the state of Michigan so there’s a lot of misnomers about what our organization is about. You’re only going to go fight, you’re only going to do this. And that’s not the truth.

“You can be a cook, you can be … an air traffic controller…” Waters said. “It’s more about making sure that you tailor and understand what that person wants to do before you put them in. … Understand their goals and then see if the Army can get them where they want to go.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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