INDIANAPOLIS---The NCAA Honors Committee has named 2LT Emily PerLt. Emily Perezez and Major Doug Zembiec as posthumous recipients of the 2008 Award of Valor and chose James MacLaren as the 2008 Inspiration Award winner.
The U.S. Military Academy’s Perez and the U.S. Naval Academy’s Zembiec, who are both deceased, and Yale University’s MacLaren will be recognized during the 2008 Honors Celebration in January at the NCAA Convention in Nashville.
A gifted track and field student-athlete at Army, Perez was an equally gifted leader, according to Jonathan Smidt, athletics chief of staff at Army. She was the first ethnic minority woman to be named command sergeant major of the Corps of Cadets at Army, a position that put her in charge of enforcing discipline for more than 4,000 cadets.
After graduating in 2005 with a degree in sociology, Perez was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the medical services corps and deployed to Iraq in December of that same year. There, she served as a treatment platoon leader, battalion public affairs officer, officer in charge of reconnaissance around her forward operating base and a convoy commander. As part of her duties, she visited every camp with which her unit was involved, a total of 10 locations throughout Iraq.
Universally beloved by fellow soldiers under her command, Perez was on a mission when an Improvised Explosive Device exploded near her vehicle. She died September 12, 2006, in Al Kifi, Iraq. Devastated, her unit recognized her memory in multiple ways. A street at the Forward Operating Base Duke was named “Emily’s Way” and the treatment facility at the base also has been named in her honor.
Zembiec’s wrestling career got off to a slow start as a freshman, but he went on to become an all-American and compile a career mark of 91-25-1 through hard work and dedication, the same characteristics he demonstrated as a soldier. Zembiec, a 1995 graduate and political science major at Navy, was a major in the Marines when he was killed in Baghdad in May of this year.Major Doug Zembiec
Nearly 1,000 attended Zembiec’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, including generals and fellow soldiers.
One of the favorite stories told about the former commander occurred in 2004. Then a captain, Zembiec and other soldiers were on a rooftop in Fallujah, under fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. After trying unsuccessfully to radio for assistance from a tank below, Zembiec raced to the street and climbed into the tank, while the enemy continued to shoot, and instructed the tank where to fire. Similar actions, one corporal said in a Washington Post story recounting Zembiec’s heroism and burial, are typically carried out by enlisted men, not captains, which are fewer in number and less like to lead from the front.
But, leading by example was Zembiec’s mode of operation. Though he would rather Zembiec was still alive, former Navy wrestling coach Reginald Wicks called Zembiec being named as an NCAA Award of Valor recipient a great honor for the fallen soldier, his parents, wife and daughter.
“He was totally committed to his goals in life and freedom for the country. He loved what he was doing,” Wicks said. “He’s definitely a hero and deserves the recognition. But, he’s missed by a lot of people.”
Two years ago, MacLaren established a philanthropic organization with a mission of impacting those in need through inspiration, compassion and accessibility, and providing children, adults and families with the tools to help them engage life at every level. He named it Choose Living.
If anyone knows about choosing to live, it is MacLaren. Weeks after graduating from Yale in 1985, MacLaren, a football and lacrosse standout and a theatre studies major, was leaving a rehearsal in New York when his motorcycle was broadsided by a 40,000-pound city bus.
Although initially diagnosed as dead on arrival at the hospital, MacLaren was comatose, but stabilized, after 18 hours of surgery. Doctors also amputated his left leg below the knee.
MacLaren awakened from the coma determined to rehabilitate his body. Eventually, he resumed his athletics pursuits, this time as a tri-athlete.
“I never entered triathlons to compete. It was just to see what I could do,” MacLaren said.
As it turns out, there was a lot he could do. MacLaren went on to become the amputee world record holder in the Boston, Los Angeles and Hamburg Marathons and in the Ironman competition in Hawaii.
However, MacLaren’s life took another dark turn on June 6, 1993, when he collided with a van two miles into the bike leg of a triathlon in California. The impact hurled him into a signpost and he broke his neck at the C5 vertebrae. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down and in a wheelchair.
The road to recovery was far tougher this time. But, MacLaren has once again battled back to reclaim some motor function of his limbs even though doctors said he would not regain movement below his neck.
MacLaren currently is a motivational speaker and has started a doctorate in mythology and depth psychology. His foundation, Choose Living, supports multiple organizations including the Challenged Athletes Foundation; Camp Good Days and Special Times, the nation’s largest cancer camp for children; and efforts to assists disabled people in Ghana and around the world.
MacLaren said he’s honored by being named as an NCAA Inspiration Award winner, but he doesn’t feel special.
“I feel like I’m a 44-year-old work in progress,” he said. “Now I get to take all those years of being a competitive athlete and not only be honored with this award, but this award honors me because it stands for more than being an athlete.”
The NCAA Award of Valor is presented to a current or former coach, administrator or varsity letter-winner who, when confronted with a situation, involving personal danger, averted or minimized potential disaster by courageous action or noteworthy bravery. For members of the armed forces to be considered for this honor, the action must be clearly above and beyond the call of duty and so recognized by the appropriate military command.
The NCAA Inspiration Award is presented to a current or former coach, administrator or varsity letter-winner who, when confronted with a life-altering situation used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome the event and now serves as a role model to give hope and inspiration to others in similar situations.
The Award of Valor and the Inspiration Award are not automatically presented on an annual basis.
The Award of Valor and Inspiration Award recipients are selected by the NCAA Honors Committee. Members of the committee are: Gene Corrigan, former Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner; Timothy W. Gleason, (chair) commissioner, Ohio Athletic Conference; Stephanie Harrison-Dyer, compliance coordinator, Albany State University (Georgia); Calvin Hill, consultant, Jerry Jones and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys; Jackie Joyner-Kersee, former University of California, Los Angeles, track and field student-athlete and Olympian; Gibbs Knotts, faculty athletic representative, Western Carolina University; Julie Powers Ruppert, senior woman administrator and associate commissioner, America East Conference and Barbara Walker, senior associate director of athletics/senior woman administrator, Wake Forest University.