With hundreds of students looking on, Buena High School social studies teacher Emmet S. Cullen received a Bronze Star with Valor on Thursday for his heroic actions 10 years ago during the Iraq War, when he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army.
U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley came to the short midday ceremony in the school's grassy quad area to personally thank Cullen for what her office described in a press release as “protecting his platoon and saving the lives of 20 Americans during his service in Mosul, Iraq.”
“I'm humbled and honored to be able to be at the awarding of this Bronze Star,” Brownley said during the ceremony. “This is an extraordinarily fearless soldier who risked his life to save other Americans. This should have been given to him many years ago.”
According to Brownley's office, the Bronze Star is the fourth highest military award and has been given to 2,460 U.S. Army soldiers for their service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The high school students cheered and clapped as they heard the details of Cullen's heroism 10 years ago.
According to the narrative (read the narrative) that accompanies the award, then-Sgt. Cullen was patrolling in Mosul as a U.S. Army sniper team leader in October 2006. While the soldiers were moving to a position where they could incapacitate enemy snipers shooting mortars at a hospital, the road under their Stryker vehicle started to give way, endangering the lives of the two soldiers inside.
Cullen was able to attach a tow line to the vehicle, even though he was under fire, and another vehicle was able to pull the men out of danger.
Later, while clearing nearby buildings during the same skirmish, Cullen engaged in hand-to-hand combat and subdued an Iraqi who had attacked a fellow soldier.
After hearing the details that led to Cullen's Bronze Star, the Buena students erupted with a roar of approval.
“He's a hero,” said senior Kai O'Sullivan.
Principal Bobbi Powers said the award ceremony was a great teaching tool for the students.
“This highlights people who are defending our country,” she said. “We have a teacher right here on campus who defended our rights. It's good for the students to know that it's not just people out in the field who are doing these things. There is someone close to home who has defended us.”
She added that she wasn't surprised Cullen was honored.
“He's passionate, yet humble,” she said. “He quietly goes about his business and fights for the kids.”
Cullen's wife, Cristina, cradled their 1-month-old daughter Marlo as she watched her husband receive the award while he held his 2-year-old son, Kendell, in his arms.
“I'm so proud of him,” Cristina Cullen said. “He's an amazing man, and we are all very lucky to have him.”
Cullen confessed to the high schoolers that despite his bravery in battle, students had him quaking on his first day of teaching.
“When I started teaching eighth graders at Balboa (Middle School) I was terrified,” he said. “I've led men in combat, but it takes a special person to stand in front of you teaching.”
Cullen thanked Brownley for her efforts to make sure he got the Bronze Star, and he equated military service with teaching.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to the military, not the other way around,” Cullen said. “Teachers serve, and I'd like to extend my gratitude to teachers. Thank you for your service.”
By Anne Kallas, Special to The Star