CAMP GRAYLING, Mich. – Staff Sgt. Justin Skaggs’ decision to be an organ donor saved several lives following his death May 23 after his motorcycle collided with a deer on a country road southwest of Hastings, Michigan. On Sept. 14, the Michigan National Guard recognized Skaggs’ legacy of selflessness by presenting his family with the Michigan National Guard Lifesaving Medal in a ceremony at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, Michigan.
Additionally, Skaggs’ mother, Toni Bozeman Skaggs, accepted a posthumous Meritorious Service Medal in a small ceremony at Camp Grayling on June 15.
“Staff Sgt. Skaggs was just a rock star soldier and a great leader,” said 1st Lt. Megan McBride, Skaggs’s company commander at the Michigan National Guard’s 1225th Support Battalion, Detroit, Michigan. “With nearly 13 years of service and two combat deployments, he was more than deserving of these honors.”
Skaggs enlisted in the Michigan National Guard in 2007 and had a service record that included combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 125th Infantry Regiment. While serving in Afghanistan, he was wounded in action and received the Purple Heart.
According to Skaggs’ brother, Caleb, his injuries were sustained while providing security overwatch while violent protests erupted outside his forward operating base.
“My brother was someone who truly embodied a servant’s heart,” he said. “Justin was very generous, compassionate, and you always knew where you stood with him.”
Capt. Jared Dilley, chaplain, 1225th SB, said he appreciated Skaggs’ work ethic and commitment to train younger soldiers. The presentation of awards to Skaggs' family brought back Dilley's own memories of Skaggs' final act of selflessness.
“I was notified the next morning that Justin had been in a bad accident,” Dilley said. “By the time I got to the hospital, they had already declared his time of death.”
For the next 48 hours, medical staff at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids worked to find recipients for Skaggs’s organ donation. By Saturday, individuals had been identified to receive his liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, and skin tissues.
Before Skaggs was ushered in for surgery to harvest the organs, fellow soldiers and family gathered for a final salute as medical staff wheeled him into the operating room.
“Many of Justin’s commanders, as well as soldiers he worked with at his present assignment, and even some he had deployed with were all there to be a part of that ‘honor walk,’ said Dilley. “It was hard, and I can’t imagine what it was like for his family, because we knew Justin was leaving. At the same time, other people had to be so grateful, not that Justin had died, but that their family member wasn’t going to – it was just kind of a surreal moment. I’ve never been a part of anything else like it.”
McBride, who was also present, said there were approximately 30 of Skaggs’ fellow soldiers on hand for the tribute.
“Considering the accident, how much they were able to not only recover, but also find applicable recipients for was incredible,” she said.
Realizing the sheer magnitude of life preserved by Skaggs’ donation led McBride to nominate him for the Michigan National Guard Lifesaving Medal. His award of the Meritorious Service Medal recognized the separate, outstanding contributions he made as a non-commissioned officer and leader.
“Justin was very standards-driven and always tried to hold soldiers accountable for their actions,” said McBride. “At the same time, he was also our equal opportunity representative and was very good at identifying soldiers who might be struggling; pulling them aside and having those softer side-conversations to encourage them when they needed it.”
Skaggs was laid to rest with full military honors May 30 at Fort Custer National Cemetery in Battle Creek. Just two weeks later, his unit began its annual 14-day annual training period at Camp Grayling, which seemed like an appropriate opportunity to hold another memorial for Skaggs, this time in a more rugged setting.
“It was our first day of annual training up here in Grayling and the intent was to have a way to honor Staff Sgt. Skaggs, so that our soldiers who couldn’t make it to the funeral would be able to pay their respects as well,” said McBride. “We had convoyed up and went immediately to the chapel, so it was a very ‘military’ service.”
After words of remembrance from Skaggs’ leadership, the floor was opened to offer other soldiers the opportunity to tell stories and reminisce. Then, at the ceremony’s close, his family was presented with Skaggs’ Meritorious Service Medal.
Because of a separate approval process, the Michigan National Guard Lifesaving Medal was awarded in the later ceremony at Camp Grayling.
According to Caleb Skaggs, the honors recognizing his brother’s selflessness are appreciated but not surprising, considering the type of person he was.
“This is just one last thing that speaks to Justin’s character,” he said. “He was really a ‘shirt-off-his-back’ type of guy.”