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Area DEA agents honored by Congress

A local DEA agent, blinded and nearly killed during a drug mission in Afghanistan, and the fellow agents who rescued him have been awarded the Congressional Badge of Bravery.

In October 2011, Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Joseph Piersante of the Stafford area was in Afghanistan with a team that included Fredericksburg resident Matthew Stewart, Jared Johnson of Spotsylvania, Brent Poortinga and Matthew Fischer of Stafford, Justin Vanderbilt of Orange and Paul Harris of Woodbridge.

The men were part of the DEA’s foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team.

They were in Afghanistan conducting “counter-narcotics/counter-insurgency operations” with Afghan police partners.

According to an account of the event from the DEA, posted on an Office of Justice Programs website, the men were conducting an operation at the end of October 2011, searching for narcotics caches and heroin production labs, and executing Afghan drug warrants.

They were searching their target area and an opium bazaar when they came under sporadic enemy fire. They remained under fire while heading back to the spot where helicopters were due to extract them.

The DEA account says Piersante was laying down suppressive fire while Stewart, Harris and Fischer boarded the helicopter. Once aboard, Stewart and an Afghan door gunner started firing to cover the other members of the team while they got on board.

Before he could get on the helicopter, Piersante was shot in the head by enemy fire, with the round penetrating his ballistic helmet, entering his head above his right eye and exiting above his left. Poortinga shot back as other agents got Piersante aboard the helicopter and provided medical care as the group evacuated.

“The actions of all the special agents involved both before and following the shooting were clearly heroic,” said the DEA account.

According to an account of the incident posted on the website of Adrian College in Michigan—Piersante’s alma mater—he suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, with both eye orbits destroyed and severe damage to his corneas and retinas.

He was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment, where his then-girlfriend arranged their wedding in the chapel. Since then, Piersante has undergone a series of operations and rehabilitation at Hines Blind Center in Illinois, according to the Adrian College account.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s website says Piersante has made “an almost full recovery.”

Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine, along with Rep. Rob Wittman, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Gerald Connolly, presented the awards to Piersante and the other members of his team at a ceremony this week in Washington.

The Congressional Badge of Bravery was begun under a 2008 act of Congress, created to honor law enforcement officers who perform “exceptional acts of bravery” in the line of duty.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028