COLLEGE PARK -- The last thing Sgt. Joshua Heskett saw before shrapnel ripped into his face was the suspicious car, one of three his Maryland Army National Guard unit had been told to watch for last August on a highway near Baghdad.
"The car lurched forward and exploded, and it all went into slow motion," Heskett, 27, recalled yesterday. The car "expanded like a balloon and thousands of sparkles. ... I thought I was going to die."
He spoke yesterday, minutes after he received one of nine Purple Heart medals awarded at welcome-home ceremonies for 130 members of the Olney-based Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment.
Heskett's light infantry unit returned to Maryland on Thursday after a year of combat operations near Baghdad and in western Iraq. It was the first combat deployment for the Guard unit since the Normandy invasion during World War II.
Despite daily contact with Iraqi civilians and frequent engagements with insurgents, Guard officials said, not a single soldier from the company was killed in combat. And the nine who suffered combat-related injuries have all recovered.
One member of the unit, Pfc. Carlton D. Newman, 21, of Landover, was killed in March last year when his Humvee overturned during training at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Newman's grandparents, parents, aunt and cousin were in the front row yesterday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the University of Maryland campus. His 8-year-old sister, Michelle, sat with the soldiers on the stage, her feet in red sneakers swinging beneath her chair. She received her brother's awards.
"They are our family now; they're our family," said Newman's father, Michael Anthony Caldwell, 50, of the men of Bravo Company.
After words of welcome and thanks from Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, Maryland's adjutant general, and George Owings, the state's secretary of Veterans Affairs, a proud and grinning Capt. Brian Borakove, the unit's commanding officer, praised his men.
"You dedication was unwavering and your professionalism inspiring," he told an auditorium crowded with baby strollers, restless kids and cheering families.
He spoke of his unit's transformation from "weekend status" to professional soldiers. "They really rose to the top and did an amazing job of pulling it all together as a team," he said.
Six Bravo Company soldiers received Army Commendation Medals, three with bronze "V's" for valor, recognizing "acts of combat heroism."
The car bombing occurred Aug. 29, after Bravo Company set up a roadblock and quickly spotted the suspect vehicles.
When the car blew up, debris tore into Heskett's eyes and forced them shut. It sliced his chin, neck and face, and knocked out a front tooth. The concussion broke his eardrums and threw him down into the vehicle.
Heskett, a computer network engineer in civilian life, said he didn't realize until later that his driver, Spc. Ronald Raymond, also was injured in the blast.
Both men were pulled to safety and evacuated to the Green Zone in Baghdad. There, the debris was removed from Heskett's eyes. The two men were later flown to Germany, and then to Fort Gordon, Ga., for further treatment.
In all, Heskett required 80 stitches. He was released from medical care on Feb. 3, still missing his tooth.
In addition to Heskett and Raymond, also awarded Purple Hearts yesterday were Sgt. Luis Alcado, Spc. Enoc Cabezas, Pfc. Michael Haney, Spc. Roy Meredith, Spc. Nishan Perrera, Sgt. Rafael Roman and Sgt. Robert Waples, all injured in other incidents.
Bravo Company left Maryland in January 2005 and deployed to Iraq on May 17 after training at Fort Stewart, and at Fort Irwin, Calif.
"Our first operation was June 6, 2005 -- 61 years to the day after our unit landed on D-Day," said 1st Lt. Adam J. Tiffen, an attorney from Arlington, Va.
After about 10 days in Kuwait, the company moved to Camp Tagi, 15 miles north of Baghdad, near the village of Sabe al Boor. Their job was to work with local Iraqi leaders, police and military units to secure the area.
After some initial hostility, he said, "the majority of the people in town were happy we were there and willing to work with us." Borakove gathered local sheiks and tribal elders into a security council in an effort to stabilize the town and help the guardsmen deny access to insurgents.
The soldiers routinely received indirect mortar and rocket fire and were attacked "dozens of times" with roadside bombs, Tiffen said. But his men found and disabled as many bombs as went off, and killed or captured a number of bombers as they worked to set their charges.
Their success in breaking up insurgent cells encouraged townspeople to provide more intelligence, which further improved security.
"By the time we left, the town was green -- if not pro-[coalition], at least neutral," Tiffen said.
In November, Bravo Company moved into western Iraq, to the Al Asad air base, where it provided highway security for supply convoys on the 700-mile round trip to the Jordanian border.
For Sgt. Andy Vinh, 31, of Silver Spring, the best moment of his year in Iraq was "to see the towns thriving, the kids starting to go back to school. ... They appreciated our help," he said. "A lot of towns, they really appreciate it, to the point where they asked us not to go. There are a few bad apples, and they wanted us to make sure they didn't come back."
Kelly Hood, 26, of Silver Spring could have spoken for all the soldiers' families and friends attending yesterday when she described the joy she felt when her fiance, Heskett, returned after his injury.
"It was a great relief just to see him," she said.