It was on Dec. 14, 2005, while on a dismounted combat patrol in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, that U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Chris Chebahtah and his squad encountered something that every deployed service member dreads … they were hit by an improvised explosive device which resulted in multiple combat injuries.
Jump forward to more than seven years and that same sergeant first class, who is now retired and employed as an electrical technician with the 412th Maintenance Group Bomber Instrumentation shop, was finally presented with the Purple Heart by Brig. Gen. Robert C. Nolan II, former Air Force Flight Test Center commander, on June 18, 2012 in front of colleagues and family members.
“Although I knew the presentation had been in the works for a long time, I can definitely say that I was still surprised by the whole thing and I think everyone who was there was dually impressed,” said Chebahtah. “In the past, I usually witnessed a battalion commander or brigade commander present something like this, so it was an honor to see the general present this to me in front of family and friends.”
Chebahtah said having his sons there would have topped the whole event, but since three of his sons are currently serving in the Army, the oldest being a lieutenant in his old unit, they were unable to make it to the presentation.
“Well, one of my sons just got back from Afghanistan and our youngest son is currently in Afghanistan, so this was too short of a notice, but they all knew that I had been put in for the nomination a while ago,” said Chebahtah.
Chebahtah, who is also a former Marine, said that there were multiple reasons the medal presentation took so long to come to realization.
“I was in a unique situation, because I was in a California National Guard unit and I was activated in August 2003. Soon after that, my unit was activated again and I went to OEF 3 [Operation Enduring Freedom] and came back,” Chebahtah said. “When I returned, I was employed at China Lake for about four months, when I got activated once again and I stayed on active status for about the next two and a half years. It was at this point where I had the option to retire from active duty due to having 14-and-a-half years of active-duty time prior to joining the National Guard and the incident we encountered was simply passed up.”
After accumulating 20 years of active military service, Chebahtah retired in 2009 and started working at Edwards.
Another factor as to why the medal presentation was delayed was that his leadership had moved on and his records were being verified as part of the Purple Heart nomination, according to Chebahtah.
“My command is no longer in existence and my battalion commander, at the time of the incident, was just sent to Afghanistan, so he couldn’t do it anyways, not to mention that the rest of the command is out and about,” said Chebahtah. “Since I worked here for the Air Force, I figured I’d just have it presented here.”
“As for the actual certificate and medal, it was actually official or entered in my military record book back in May, but we were still waiting for all the supporting documentation, which didn’t come in until a week before the ceremony,” he added.
During the ceremony, U.S. Army Capt. Anthony Bangaloy, who was deployed with Chebahtah during the 2005 incident, provided a reading of the certificate which gave those in attendance a description of the Purple Heart’s origin.
“The Purple Heart is an American decoration, the oldest military decoration in the world in present use and the first American award made available to the common Soldier. It was initially created as the Badge of Military Merit by one of the world’s most famed and best-loved heroes, General George Washington,” said Bangaloy. “The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the Armed Forces of the United States who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.”
After opening remarks from Nolan, the presentation was followed by closing remarks from Chebahtah who briefly discussed what this day meant.
“I’m just glad it’s finally over and done and that there is closure, to a certain degree,” said Chebahtah. “I know for myself, I was very fortunate and I think we, collectively, had an outstanding chain of command at that particular time. They were really good even though the situation was bad.”
SFC Christopher Chebahtah was assigned to Delta Company, 1-184th Infantry Battalion, 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division while serving in Baghdad, Iraq during the incident.