With the steady news of local soldiers traveling to and from the war in Iraq, the word “hero” gets tossed around a lot.

It’s a title that means much more when it’s handed down from a general and backed by a Bronze Star, the medal used to recognize heroic or meritorious achievement by soldiers, sailors and marines during war time.

Staff Sgt. Steve Hutchings was still getting used to the distinguished designation after receiving the honor Saturday, even though he has known it was coming for more than a year. He was in the first wave of soldiers to roll into the country in 2003, and it also took some time to get used to the appreciation he was shown by regular civilians when he returned a year later.

“It was really hard when I came back — with all the people saying, ‘thank you,’” Hutchings said. “I was just doing my job. To me, it was my job.”

The truth is his work guarding the Syrian border and, later, clearing out an Iraqi ammunition stronghold near Fallujah can’t possibly be compared to a day at the office.

“This medal really indicates that he was dedicated not only to his mission, but his soldiers,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Pollmann, the officer who pinned the Bronze Star on Hutchings during a ceremony at Mankato’s U.S. Army Reserve Armory. “He was in a dangerous part of the country.”

Pollmann, who is commander of the 88th Regional Readiness Command based at Fort Snelling, said he’s presented four of the awards during the past two years. More of the soldiers under him have received the Bronze Star, but most of the medals were issued while they were still in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There wasn’t one incident that earned the award for Hutchings, but there is one achievement that stands out. That job required getting rid of millions of pounds of ammunition found in one compound, a system of bunkers in an area about five miles long by two miles wide just west of Fallujah.

He was in charge of about 30 other soldiers and the 200 to 300 Iraqi men who would come to work for him each day. Iraq is still a dangerous place to be in many areas, but it was far more dangerous when Hutchings was there.

Ammunition they were clearing from the bunkers and bringing to a place where it could be detonated later would sometimes show up in the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that were found on roads around the compound. The buses and trucks that were being used to move workers and the ammunition were known to have bombs in their gas tanks on occasion.

“It was a very important mission to get done because, if we didn’t get rid of the stuff, they would have just used it against us,” said Sgt. Shawn Strausser, who worked under Hutchings during the mission. “I’m proud that he got the medal. He deserved it.”

At one point a fire had to be put out after an Iraqi worker dropped some fuses and ignited gun powder. Several Iraqi men and one soldier were injured, but Hutchings kept everything under control, got the injured men the medical attention they needed and made sure the fire was put out quickly, Strausser said.

There were many other bad things that could have happened if the job wasn’t done right, he added.

Their earlier work on the border with Syria, which involved checking cars for contraband as they passed through checkpoints, was dangerous, too. Gunfire was common and the enemy was everywhere.

And there were other missions that weren’t worthy of medals, but had other rewards. Cleaning the grounds around a hospital and getting hoards of ammunition out of school classrooms are on that list for Hutchings.

“I’m very proud of what I did over there,” he said. “I’m glad I went over and I think we’re doing the right thing — that’s because of the Iraqis I met, the children.”

Hutchings lives in Chisholm, but he’s been training in Mankato since the 1990s. He lived in Mankato when he started his reserve duty and his father, Dale, is still a resident.

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