WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Capitol is a long way from the battlefield near Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Staff Sgt. Christopher Petersen put his life on the line to save four soldiers under fire in an ambush.
But it was in the gallery of the brightly lit, packed House chamber that Petersen, 28, of Commack, found himself Tuesday night as the guest of Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) for the State of the Union address.
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Petersen, a full-time pararescue journeyman assigned to the Air National Guard's 103rd Rescue Squadron, said he found the contrast to be "surreal" but appreciated the opportunity Bishop gave him when there are many troops deserving of recognition.
"Some are here, some are overseas, and some are no longer with us," he said, "They all deserve their equal, just respect from everybody."
Bishop said he invited Petersen after a December ceremony at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, where Petersen and five other members of the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing were awarded Bronze Stars for their bravery in the rescue.
Bishop said he wanted to show his pride in representing the 106th in Congress, but also wanted to honor Petersen for being named by the USO as the Guardsman of the Year.
In December 2012, near Kandahar, Petersen left his helicopter, crossed open ground under fire to treat several wounded soldiers and used his body to shield one from a rocket-launched grenade. He then carried another wounded soldier through fire to the chopper.
Petersen, a 2003 Commack High School and 2007 Notre Dame graduate, gave up his job as a financial analyst to join the Air National Guard in 2008.
Also at the speech was an Army National Guard veteran of the Iraq War, Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He was a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)