CAMP PENDLETON — A San Diego Police Department sergeant credited with saving a fellow officer’s life six years ago by bodily shielding him from gunfire was awarded a Purple Heart for combat wounds he suffered while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Iraq War.
Dressed in his SDPD uniform, Francisco Roman Jr., a former member of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, received the military commendation Tuesday at Camp Pendleton.
Roman was wounded by an improvised explosive device in the spring of 2005 while leading Marines in a quick-reaction force to support another squad during a firefight in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
“We were patrolling back to our base, and I noticed that the streets were empty,” Roman told the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. “A mosque started playing the call to prayer. I looked back and told my squad mate that it felt like we were in a movie, and the next thing I saw was a bright orange flash.”
Knocked unconscious, Roman awoke minutes later, took cover and, though wounded, began regrouping his unit.
“I found my squad and asked them who got hit, and they told me that I got hit,” he said. “I didn’t know I got hit.”
Though he was not initially awarded a Purple Heart, Roman was persuaded by his military comrades and wife to advocate for the medal. Marines who served with him in Iraq submitted witness statements in support of the proposed commendation, among them his platoon commander, who wrote in lieu of Roman’s company commander, who had been killed in action in Ramadi.
During the Camp Pendleton ceremony, Roman told the Marines in attendance that there were a “couple of reasons why it took so long” for him to get the distinguished military decoration for his combat valor. One was that, immediately after being wounded, he did not “want to get evacuated” from the war zone for medical treatment.
“I didn’t want to leave my guys behind, so – I wanted to stay with them,” Roman said. “I also felt that I wasn’t injured enough to leave the battlefield.”
Despite Roman’s initial doubts about meriting the medal, Gen. Eric Smith, commandant of the Marine Corps and formerly Roman’s battalion commander in Ramadi, wound up personally signing off on the Purple Heart. The citation was presented by Col. Daniel Whitley, deputy commander of Marine Corps Installations West.
“Roman lives a life of service,” Whitley said. “He selflessly sacrificed for his country, and he continues to sacrifice for his community.”
Roman became an officer with the San Diego Police Department in 2015. Three years later, he suffered three gunshot wounds during a College-area shootout that also injured one of his SDPD colleagues.
Patrol personnel were responding to a disturbance at a Rolando Court apartment complex when they came under fire late on the evening of June 23, 2018. Realizing that fellow Officer Dan Bihum was wounded, Roman acted fast.
“I took a position in front of him just in case, so it would be me to get hit next instead of him getting hit again,” Roman told the military news service. “All I could think about was my family and protecting my partner.”
Roman also returned fire along with another lawman before being wounded.
Later that night, the man who had shot the officers was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Bihum was discharged from a trauma center two days after the shootout. He also was in attendance at his SDPD colleague’s Purple Heart award ceremony.
Roman, who spent two days in a medically induced coma and a year in rehabilitation before he was able to return to police duties, attributed his survival to training he received while serving in the Marine Corps. He told the Department of Defense news agency he hopes his story might inspire others to undertake careers in the military or law enforcement.
“We serve to help people,” the retired Marine Corps staff sergeant said. “That’s what’s most important.”