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Air national guardsman put his life on the line

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 9:14 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
New Jersey Air National Guard member Mike Sears gets a hug from his family at their home on Wednesday, May 15, 2013. Sears was working as a bomb technician in Afghanistan when he rescued a Polish soldier and sustained traumatic brain injury. Those actions earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Shown left to right is his daughter Lexi, 7, his wife, Jen, his son Mike, 9 and his daughter, Kali, 5.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
New Jersey Air National Guard member Mike Sears of Beaver is shown at his home on Wednesday, May 15, 2013.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
New Jersey Air National Guard member Mike Sears was working as a bomb technician in Afghanistan when he rescued a Polish soldier and sustained traumatic brain injury during an ambush. Those actions earned him a Purple Heart, right, and a Bronze Star.

The gunfire was inescapable. Nearly 10 Afghan terrorists fired machine guns and launched rocket grenades designed to kill.

Tech. Sgt. Mike Sears was trapped in an open, dusty field with no cover, shielding a wounded soldier from the lethal attack.

“Rounds were hitting all around me, so I laid on top of the soldier, hoping the rounds would hit me instead of him,” said Sears, 36, of Brighton in Beaver County. “He was already injured enough.”

Sears risked his life to save a Polish soldier wounded during an ambush while on a mission in Afghanistan's Ghazni province on Sept. 29. Sears, assigned to the 177th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard based in New Jersey, received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions.

On Saturday, he will be honored during a ceremony at his base in Atlantic City, where the family lived until about five years ago.

That September morning began simply enough for Sears, who said he joined the Air Force because of his interest in explosives.

Sears and his team were on a mission to disarm one explosive. But Sears quickly discovered someone had planted two more on the dusty path.

“I just quietly reacted. Instead of going back to the truck … (I) defused them by hand, collected evidence,” Sears said. “We cleared the scene and headed out when we came under attack.”

A rocket grenade struck one of the team's vehicles, wounding the truck's Polish driver, Dariusz Cegielka. Sears dashed to the truck as shots flew around him and dragged Cegielka out of the front seat. Sears tore several ligaments in his arm doing so.

He tried to drag Cegielka to safety but was forced to stop in a field as bombs dropped around them.

Sears' friend, Tech. Sgt. Jay Hurley, witnessed what happened. Hurley said Sears is lucky to be alive.

“I saw the second RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) come by our truck and hit so close to me, I really thought he was dead,” Hurley said. “I didn't think he would survive that hit. But when the dust settled, and the smoke cleared from the detonation, Mike and the wounded solder were still there.”

Sears tied a tourniquet on Cegielka's leg and performed life-saving first aid. He ran across the open line of fire five times to get the soldier to safety.

The fight left Sears with a traumatic brain injury and an injured left arm. Yet instead of cutting short his deployment to receive medical attention, Sears completed his mission and returned home in December.

Today, he works for the federal Department of Homeland Security in Pittsburgh as an explosives specialist.

At his Beaver home, he's a loving dad to three energetic children, Mike, 9, Lexi, 7, and Kali, 5, and husband to wife, Jen.

He coaches his kids' football and baseball teams in Brighton. He and Jen are organizing a golf tournament to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.

Sears, who said he's not related to the co-founder of the department store chain, will not complete another tour because of his injuries.

“It's a relief to me, but I know in his head he'd like to do more,” said Jen, 40. “At least we know he'll be safe.”

Christina Gallagher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5637 or cgallagher@tribweb.com.

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