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Marine, NIU grad wins Valor Award for heroic actions in Iraq

Lt. Steven M. Clifton remembers the day his helicopter was rocked by enemy bullets high above the Iraqi desert. "I was the co-pilot flying a mission to transport an injured soldier from Fallujah to a medical facility outside Baghdad," Clifton said, his voice exuding the calm confidence of a seasoned Marine. "Out of nowhere, we were hit with small arms fire from the ground." Minutes after takeoff, the helicopter pilot was wounded by insurgent gunfire. Shrapnel from broken glass tore into Clifton's body. Suddenly, a flash fire sprang up in the cabin area, causing the aircraft to lose electrical power. Despite the throbbing pain from his injuries, Clifton managed to gain control of the aircraft and fly the crew to safety. The Northern Illinois University graduate's heroic actions earned him the Aviators' Post Valor Award. The nomination came while he was serving as an aircraft commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. The annual award is given to one member of each of the three military branches to recognize courageous acts performed during flights. Past winners include Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold and Maj. Charles E. Yeager. On May 14, Clifton traveled to the American Legion in Garden City, N.Y., to receive the award in front of a small crowd of distinguished pilots. Clifton, 33, spoke modestly over the phone from his office in Temecula, Calif. "It was quite a shock when they first told me about the award," he said. "I was humbled they thought I was worthy of such an honor." The first lieutenant's bravery also netted him a recommendation for the Distinguished Flying Cross with Combat Distinguishing Device. He will add that to a list of decorations that includes the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with Strike Numeral Five, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. "Steven has worked hard to get where he is now," his mother, Marion, of DeKalb said. "Everything he was taught during his years of training paid off when he flew out of there that day. I thank God he was able to save himself and everyone else on that helicopter." Clifton's history with the Marines began in 1990, when he enlisted after graduating from high school. He took time off after his sixth year of service to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from NIU. A second generation soldier, Clifton said his father, Steven, served in the Navy and his grandfather worked for the Department of Defense. A second tour in Iraq soon will temporarily separate Clifton from his wife, Sherry Marie, and their infant daughter, but if he is afraid, he doesn't show it. Mom Marion is a little more worried. "I hope he doesn't have to stay over there long," she said. "I'm on pins and needles every time he goes."

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