Gene Arden (“Buddy”) Vance Jr. ( November 30, 1963 – May 18, 2002) was an American soldier, a member of a US Special Forces Airborne Reserve Unit who, despite being critically wounded, saved the lives of two fellow Americans and 18 Afghani soldiers during the War in Afghanistan (2001–14). Vance’s actions, life story, heroism and death were widely publicized in the mainstream media and is featured in several books on the Global War on Terror as well as in the ABC reality series "Profiles from the Front Line". Vance was the first member of the National Guard of the United States to be killed in direct action since a New Hampshire National Guard soldier was killed in Vietnam in 1969. He was also the first West Virginia National Guardsman to be killed in action (KIA) since World War II and the first U.S. Army graduate of Goodfellow Air Force Base's cryptography training to be KIA while taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom. Both federal and state leaders in the United States government have inscribed Vance into US history as a national hero. Two US military intelligence staff buildings, a military camp in Bagram, Afghanistan, a US state bridge, a US based non-profit organization, an annual US citywide memorial day, biometric laboratory, hall of honor, city/ mountain bike path, trademarked coffee label and memorial drive have been named in his honor. He received 17 awards and decorations including the US Army Purple Heart, two Bronze Star Medals for Valor and the Legion of Merit that recognizes exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of sustained, superior achievement.
Early, family and personal life
Vance was born on Nov. 30, 1963, in Frankfurt, Germany. He was the first born son of the late Gene Arden Vance Sr., a retired US army officer and member of the Green Berets who was a magistrate and sheriff of Wyoming County, West Virginia and June Carol Steele from neighboring McDowell County, WV who is a retired registered nurse teaching nursing in the United States. The Vance’s also had two younger children, Gene Jr.’s siblings, David and Jamie.
Vance is a member of a multi-generational US military family spanning four generations of service. His great uncles William ‘Bittle’ Steele, US Army 4th Infantry Division Bravo Company and Clarence 'Buck' England served in the Battle of the Bulge. His father Gene Sr. served with the LRRP and U.S. Special Forces as a Captain in the Vietnam war and then with the Military Police in Thailand. Gene Sr. was described by the media as a lean, well-muscled lawman standing 6-foot-4, and 'ramrod straight'. His uncles William Edward Vance and James Ray Vance served in long term US military careers. Gene Vance Jr.'s younger brother David is a retired non-commissioned officer who served with the 101st Airborne performing two tours of duty in the Iraq War and whose son, Gene's nephew, serves in the US Navy. During his life Gene actively sought to continue his family's military legacy.
Gene A. Vance Jr. was described as a 6-foot-4 inches tall "mountaineer"- an avid outdoorsman and physical fitness, mountain biking, white water rafting, backpacking, kayaking, snowboarding and chess enthusiast. He kept much of his military life a secret from friends and family who believed he led what was described as two lives - a different life than people saw. He loved the Grateful Dead, John Prine and became well known to Dick Dale as one of his fans. He liked to wear Birkenstock sandals and Deadhead T-shirts in sharp contrast to his military life and secret government missions. The reason for Gene's secrecy was believed to be in part due to his modest nature and also to the secretive nature of his elite training as both a cryptologic linguist and a US Special Forces Reservist. Gene had specialty skills in translating intercepted foreign state communications and was honored by the US National Security Agency.
Vance was a student at West Virginia University and a 1981 graduate of Oceana High School (West Virginia) in Wyoming County, where he was voted "most quiet" in his high school senior class. From all accounts he was a strong, shy, selfless, pleasant, gentle and quiet man who loved a wide variety of rock and roll music, and dark roast coffee.
Vance had a daughter, Amber, from a previous marriage, and was married to Lisa Selmon Vance at the time of his death. Vance's personal communications with his wife during wartime service were featured in a book entitled ‘Behind The Lines’ by author Andrew Carroll.
At the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Vance was living in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was newly married and about to go on his honeymoon. He was also just beginning a new semester at West Virginia University and managed one of West Virginia's largest sporting goods stores in the city.
Among the U.S. Army responses to the September 11 terrorist attacks was the activation of the 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, (Airborne). Vance served with the West Virginia Army National Guard element of the battalion. Vance cancelled his honeymoon and put his studies on hold to go to war. Vance's Persian-Farsi language, cryptologic and special forces skills, harnessed at the start of the war in Afghanistan, were rare and distinguished him from the majority of the US Army.
Vance's skills became vital to operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Vance attended Basic and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Gordon, Ga., for Communications Systems Circuit Controller in 1983. In 1988, he completed the Primary Leadership Development Course at Fort Ord, Ca. and then served in various active-duty assignments both in the United States and overseas from June 1983 until June 1990.
Vance's military education included:
- The Communication System Circuit Course
- The Primary Leadership Development Course
- The Petroleum Supply Specialist Course
- The Basic Airborne Course
- The Special Forces Command Basic Non commissioned Officer Course
- Advanced International Morse Code
- The Persian-Farsi Language Course
Vance was awarded his first Bronze Star for Valor for his actions in the Persian Gulf War then joined the Army Reserves as a supply specialist in the 646th Quartermaster Company, Kingwood, W.Va., from January 1992 until October 1992. During this period, he completed the Petroleum Supply Specialist Course. He then joined Company C, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), in October 1992. In 1994, he transferred to Support Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He was later awarded the military occupational skill of voice interceptor in 2001. After the events on September 11, 2001, Vance’s special forces unit was activated.
According to the US Military, Staff Sergeant Vance's patrol was ambushed on 18 May 2002 by Taliban fighters in the vicinity of Shkin, Paktika Afghanistan while taking part in Operation Mountain Lion. Although critically wounded in the initial attack, Staff Sergeant Vance continued to translate battlefield intelligence for Afghan forces in the area, directing them out of danger. For his actions Vance received multiple awards and decorations. He had also played a critical role in developing his detachment's communications capabilities in the US led efforts to capture Osama Bin Laden.
Death, Memorials and Tributes
- On May 19, 2002 Vance died from a gunshot wound to the chest according to official military reports and was posthumously promoted to Staff Sergeant. Varied accounts and reports surrounding Vance’s death were widespread in the media immediately upon his death.
- On Saturday, May 26, 2002, the day before US Memorial Day approximately 1,000 people including state, national military and government officials, attended Vance’s memorial service held in his hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. West Virginia University President David C. Hardesty, Jr., bestowed upon Vance an honorary bachelor of arts degree from the university which Vance had attended before his deployment to Afghanistan saying that Vance represented "a potent combination of the ordinary and extraordinary." Former US Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia was in office as the senate intelligence committee chairman at the time of Vance's death. He paid tribute to Vance's service saying that Americans who enjoy the freedoms and comforts their society provides must never forget that they do so because of men such as Sergeant Vance. US Senators, Joe Manchin III and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia have paid tribute to Vance by honoring his actions to 'fight terror in the name of freedom'.
- On July 14, 2002 the State of West Virginia named the Oceana Junction Bridge at the intersection of State Route 85 and State Route 10, in Oceana, Wyoming County, West Virginia, the "SSG Gene Arden Vance, Jr., Memorial Bridge."
- In December 2002, "Camp Vance", Bagram, Afghanistan located in Bagram airfield, was formed and headquartered the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan.
- In May 2003, the year following Vance’s death, the US National Security Agency engraved Vance's name on the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Memorial Wall, which honors the 153 cryptologists who have given their lives in the performance of their duties since World War II. That same year the second episode of the ABC reality series Profiles from the Front Line, produced by Warner Bros. and Jerry Bruckheimer Television, aired and featured the death of Sgt. Vance in the war.
- In 2003, the City of Morgantown, WV named a portion of the Deckers Creek Trail which is part of the city's historical rail trail, "The Vance Mile."
- In 2005, a revised and expanded English hard cover translation of a French language book Sur les traces d'al-qaida (On the trail of Al Qaeda) was published by Zenith Press. It was entitled Hunting al Queda and was authored by several members of 'Beast 85', the code name of a Special Forces team from the 20th Special Forces Group, which deployed to Afghanistan in May 2002 and had become involved in the incident that claimed Vance’s life.
- On Aug. 25, 2006 a newly constructed building was named "Vance Barracks" at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) and Presidio of Monterey in California. US Congressman Sam Farr of California helped secure funding for the building honoring Vance. The congressman described the Global War on Terror as a new war because it is unlike conventional warfare and asymmetrical, requiring the US military to think differently, develop capability and forces that can adapt quickly to unexpected circumstances.
- On Dec. 21, 2006, Vance’s brother in-law, Michael M. J. Minc formed the "Gene Vance Jr. Foundation for the Catastrophically Injured" in response to US soldiers returning home from the Global War on Terror with severely disfiguring injuries. The Foundation established in Vance's honor is an all volunteer, medical humanitarian non-profit organization leading an initiative entitled Operation Total Restoration that marshals the forces of military and civilian specialists to help advance care for the war wounded and traumatically injured. In 2011, the Naval Medical Center San Diego presented the foundation with a certificate of appreciation for their leader's unyielding volunteer dedication to the advancement of medicine and commitment to education in Vance's name that has elevated the standard of care and expanded treatment options for the community and the United States Navy during a time of armed conflict.
- On April 24, 2007 Goodfellow Air Force base in Texas named the 344th Military Intelligence Battalion Headquarters Building on West Vance Street the "Vance-Nolan Military Intelligence Building" honoring two American soldiers: Staff Sgt. Vance of Morgantown, West Virginia, who was the first U.S. Army graduate of Goodfellow Air Force Base's cryptologic training to be killed in action while taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom. and Sgt. Joseph M. Nolan of Waterbury, Connecticut who was the first U.S. Army graduate of the Goodfellow Air Force Base's cryptologic training to be killed in action while taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
- On March 30, 2008 the new "SSG Gene Arden Vance Jr and SG DeForest Lee Talbert Hall of Honor" located inside the Camp Dawson Headquarters building, was dedicated in tribute honoring these two American soldiers displaying all the flags of the world atop the wall that prominently bears their names. Sgt. DeForest L. Talbert of Charleston, W.Va. died on Jul. 27, 2004, while serving in operation Iraqi Freedom.
- On Aug. 21, 2008 the new "Department of Defense Biometrics Task Force (redesignated as the Biometrics Identity Management Agency in 2010) Gene Vance Biometrics Experimentation Center at Camp Dawson (West Virginia)" was dedicated in honor of Vance to house the biometrics experimentation capabilities and communications vehicle.
- On May 18, 2012, US Armed Forces Day and ten years following Vance’s fatal shooting, a new day in the United States of America called the "Gene Vance Jr. Day" was founded in Vance's hometown. It was created by the Gene Vance Jr. Foundation with support from officials representing the State of West Virginia,City of Morgantown, West Virginia Army National Guard, West Virginia University, business and media organizations to honor the legacy of American soldiers who returned home from the longest ongoing war in US history, remembers the fallen and supports the wounded in honor of their hometown hero. Framed by Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day in the United States, the day is observed annually in Morgantown on May 18.
- On May 1, 2012 the United States Patent and Trademark Office registered the trademark "Bud's Bold Brew Coffee" that contained a portrait of Vance in his honor.
- On May 22, 2016, the 15th anniversary year of 9/11, the City of Morgantown, WV designated a memorial highway in Vance's honor named the "Gene Arden Vance Jr. Memorial Drive".
Memorial tributes and dedications surrounding Vance’s death exist to the present day.
Awards and decorations
- Legion of Merit
- Bronze Star for Valor (2nd award)
- Purple Heart
- Army Achievement Medal (for his role in San Francisco’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake)
- Good Conduct Medal (2nd Award)
- Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal
- National Defense Service Medal
- Armed Forces Reserve Medal with “M” Device
- Non commissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon
- Army Service Ribbon
- Overseas Service Ribbon
- Parachutist Badge
- West Virginia Distinguished Service Medal
- West Virginia State Service Ribbon
- West Virginia Distinguished Unit Award