Mitchell’s Marcus Rothlisberger presented with Purple Heart
Rep. Dusty Johnson presents medal to Operation Enduring Freedom veteran
MITCHELL — When he learned that he would receive the Purple Heart for wounds he sustained while in the United States Army during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Marcus Rothlisberger asked that the presentation ceremony be kept as small as possible.
With the upstairs community room at VFW Post 2750 in Mitchell filled nearly to capacity for that ceremony with friends, family and a U.S. Representative on Wednesday afternoon, it was clear he didn’t get his wish.
“I absolutely hate doing this,” Rothlisberger said, bringing laughter from the crowd. “Thank you for always having my back and always being there.”
The crowd, including Rep. Dusty Johnson, was on hand to honor Rothlisberger and present him with a Purple Heart, which is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the armed forces who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the armed services, is wounded or killed.
Rothlisberger suffered wounds when the guard tower in Afghanistan in which he was posted was struck by an incoming enemy round. Dizzy and disoriented, he managed to radio in that he was all right, but as the day wore on, he didn’t feel right. He suffered from a pounding in his head and had trouble concentrating. Light hurt his eyes and he was nauseated.
He was sent to a military concussion care clinic where he was diagnosed with a concussion and stayed for a few days to receive care and guidance on how to take care of any long term symptoms.
While Rothlisberger appears for all the world to be a healthy adult today, the wounds received in that attack run deep and remain with him.
“(Traumatic brain injury) is a real thing,” Rothlisberger told the crowd, his voice growing emotional. “It’s the silent wound that nobody ever sees or talks about. It goes unnoticed and undocumented, and over the years it’s something that I’ve learned to speak to the VA about and be forward with it and not fight it.”
Johnson, who has presented various types of medals to service veterans over the years, said this presentation was his first chance to bestow a Purple Heart. He said as someone who had never served in the military, it is difficult to understand what Rothlisberger, and military veterans like him, have to endure in service to their country.
“It’s hard for me to understand the pain and dizziness and the confusion that he would have had in the days and weeks after that moment,” Johnson said. “It’s hard for so many in this country of 330 million, most of whom will never serve, to understand what it’s like for someone to raise their right hand and swear an oath to the United States of America.”
The soft-spoken Rothlisberger graduated from Mitchell High School in 2007 before taking up a short stint at South Dakota State University. He later joined the Army and found himself in Afghanistan in 2012, where he remained until 2018 when returned to his hometown of Mitchell, where he works at Vern Eide Ford.
He acknowledged his family at the ceremony, including his children and fiancee Alicia, along with his grandparents, co-workers and even former teachers and mentors, thanking them for their support and love over the years.
He was proud of his time in the Army, and said he still recalls his friends and comrades in arms on a nearly daily basis.
“I had an amazing Army career and met a lot of good guys and considered them brothers. I still talk to a lot of them today. That is one of the unfortunate things of coming back from war, but you learn from it and you move on and you carry them every day,” Rothlisberger said. “I wouldn’t change a day of my life. I appreciate every one of you guys who are here. The support you show, I’m very grateful for and blessed to have you in my life. I love every one of you.”
Following the ceremony, Johnson told the Mitchell Republic that it was time for the military to recognize Rothlisberger and his sacrifice for his country. He was glad his office could help complete the process.
“(Purple Hearts are not given out) very often. Generally the military tries to make sure they get people Purple Hearts in the immediate aftermath of the injury. This was unusual and unfortunate, even after Marcus had sustained well-documented injuries related to his service, he was not able to get a Purple Heart.”
Johnson said not all wounds are apparent to the naked eye, but they can be just as traumatic and debilitating as any serious corporeal injury.
“If I had a magic wand and could change people’s understanding of military service, it would be that they realize that most injuries are not visible to the eye. There are, of course, people who have lost legs and arms, and that’s terrible, but a lot of the traumatic experiences our veterans have had aren’t superficial wounds,” Johnson said. “I’m really glad Marcus took the time at the microphone to talk about TBI and how many vets suffer and suffer from it.”
Martin Christensen, quartermaster for VFW Post 2750 and a former military doctor, said he had seen the effects of injuries like Rothlisberger’s first hand, whether they came from improvised explosive devices or conventional bombs. He also said he admired Rothlisberger speaking about the issue in his remarks Wednesday.
“The impact is what you can’t see. I saw thousands of (cases of TBI). It’s a real deal. It is serious. That’s the impact of those IEDs and the bombs that they went through,” Christensen said. “I think it’s good that he is able to (speak about it). It helps him to process it and bring closure.”
Rothlisberger hopes the public understands the need for positive support for veterans like him who are suffering, sometimes just below the surface. It means a lot to veterans who may be having a difficult time dealing with the effects of their wounds.
“I would just say support all the veterans. You don’t know what’s going on in their heads. They could be having good days or bad days, you never know,” Rothlisberger said. “That’s probably the biggest thing I have to say: just support everyone around you.”
The crowd in the community room at the VFW was there to do that for him, just as he stepped up to serve his country for them. Following the ceremony, they lined up to shake hands, share a hug or simply thank him for his service.
Johnson noted that even with the well-known dangers that come with military service, some like Rothlisberger still answer the call. That is humbling and deserving of respect from everyone.
“There is a bittersweet aspect to this. Bitter because people get wounded. People get hurt and die in the service of this, the greatest country in the history of the world. That is a bitter thought. It tastes harsh in our mouths,” Johnson said. “But it is also sweet, because there are men and women who, even knowing that those costs may come, they still choose to serve this country.”
He then glanced over at Rothlisberger, sitting quietly to the side.
“Marcus Rothlisberger is one of those patriots.”