By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — Neal Purvis devoted his life to serving his country — three different times he was deployed to the Middle East.
When he puts on his old Army uniform, a chestful of medals shines back at you.
“Every one of them was earned,” Purvis says. “There weren’t no gimmies.”
When he lists all of his honors on paper, they add up to 42 various medals, awards, decorations and citations.
For 23 years, when his own National Guard unit wasn’t deployed, Purvis worked full time for National Guard facilities — first in Morrisville, then in Salisbury.
Purvis’ wife, Lynne, says her husband was constantly spending extra hours, helping other guys work toward their own promotions and commendations.
“He was married to the guard, literally,” Lynne says.
“They don’t pay you for that,” Neal adds.
But Neal’s dystonia, which affects the muscles in his neck and causes a mild shaking of his head, led the Army to transfer him out of the National Guard and put him in the individual reserve medical group.
Essentially, he was put out to pasture and would never be deployed again. It also meant that since he was not attached to a unit in the National Guard, he could not be a federal military employee.
So he lost his longtime job ($32 an hour) at the National Guard aviation facility in Salisbury, too.
All together, it was devastating, Purvis says, and he acknowledges plunging into months of despair, often turning to alcohol as a crutch. He was in his mid-50s, couldn’t find work, had a medical condition and a substance abuse problem.
With the help of Lynne and their twin daughters, Devan and Heather, Purvis has emerged sober and proud, of course, of his distinguished military record.
He has been receiving treatment at the VA hospital for post traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, his girls are freshmen at Catawba College, and Lynne works as a teacher’s assistant at Koontz Elementary School. To help with the bills, he receives special military disability and VA compensation.
Purvis, who lives in Spencer, was the oldest of five children. His father drove a truck for Mid State Farm, and the kids attended Chatham Central High School, where Purvis graduated in 1974. He earned an associate degree from Sandhills Community College in landscape gardening and went to work for the landscaping division of the N.C. Department of Transportation in Raleigh for five years.
In 1983, Purvis enlisted in the Army. He trained at Fort Jackson, S.C., followed by 50 weeks of training in microwave satellite communications repair at Fort Gordon, Ga. Later, he moved to Fort Bragg.
Through his various training opportunities, Purvis could tear down and put together 220 different pieces of equipment.
Neal and Lynne married in 1980. After four years with the Army, Purvis opted to transfer to the N.C. National Guard, beginning his 23 years of service in the Guard.
In 1987, he also became a full-time military communications technician, a federal employee who wore his Army uniform to work every day at the state National Guard headquarters in Raleigh. Again, a stipulation for having that job was that he also be attached to a National Guard unit, apart from his full-time job.
In Purvis’ case, he was attached first to a communications unit in Burlington. In 1990, he transferred to an aviation battalion of Apache helicopters in Morrisville, next to the Raleigh-Durham Airport.
It also was 1990 when a position opened up at the National Guard’s flight facility at the Rowan County Airport. Lynne Purvis had grown up in Spencer and is a 1976 graduate of North Rowan High School who wanted to come back home. Within a year, Neal was an avionics mechanic at the Army Aviation Support Facility No. 2 in Salisbury.
The couple’s twin girls were born in 1992. For the next several years, Purvis worked daily at the National Guard flight facility in Rowan County, while his separate National Guard obligations had him going to Morrisville once a month and two weeks in the summers.
He would be attached to the Apache attack helicopter battalion until 2007.
Over a 10-year period, Purvis would be deployed to the Middle East three times — twice with the 1-130th Aviation Battalion in Morrisville, which went to Kuwait in 1998-99 and Afghanistan in 2003-2004. In 2008-2009, he was attached to the 449th Aviation Brigade, also out of Morrisville, when it served in Iraq.
In Kuwait, Purvis served as part of Operation South Watch and was an acting first sergeant for his task force. He remembers SCUD missile alarms going off five or six times while he was stationed at the Kuwait base. Only one of the SCUDs was picked up by radar as an inbound missile.
“It was quite an exciting moment,” Purvis says now, laughing.
“Everybody tried to get in the same bunker.”
The missile fell off the radar and never reached them.
“We were just a show of force to keep Iraq in check,” Purvis said of the U.S. mission then. “Keep them from crossing the border.”
Purvis received a Joint Services Achievement Award in Kuwait for putting together a crucial communications package.
In Afghanistan, Purvis served in Operation Enduring Freedom and was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division. The main mission then was support, seek and destroy in the fight against terrorism.
It was a difficult time for Purvis to be away from home. His twin daughters were 10, and the family communicated by email and telephone, though the 12-hour time difference often made that difficult. Lynne and the girls also traveled to the armory in Morrisville, where the Army set up a video conference call on occasion.
Purvis says he could have had leave to come home, but the couple decided it was better for him to stay the duration, so he wouldn’t have to say goodbye again.
“That was hard,” Neal says.
In Iraq in 2008-2009, Purvis was first stationed in the heart of Baghdad at Camp Victory, but he also moved on to Tallil and Balad. He was part of four different transfer of authority ceremonies, as one group of soldiers replaced another. He left Iraq and the Middle East for good Sept. 2, 2009.
Purvis had attained the rank of command sergeant major and a pay grade of E-9.
“I had just reached the pinnacle of my career and just reached the point where I could help a lot of soldiers, and it was all taken away,” he says.
Those days of despair followed, but Purvis continues to mend, one day at a time.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
By Mark Wineka