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Major Christopher Dean '02

2015 Nininger Award Recipient Story

On the morning of April 4, 2004, the Soldiers of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment were in a great mood. Having been part of Operation Iraqi Freedom for nearly a year, they had turned in their tank’s main ammunition days prior, expecting a move from Camp War Eagle in the Sadr City section of Baghdad to Kuwait. This was to be their last official duty day in Iraq. “We were about to turn into a pumpkin,” said Major Christopher P. Dean ’02, who was a first lieutenant and the unit’s platoon leader on that fateful day. “We had ceased all patrols and were all sitting around on cots saying, ‘We’re done!’ and then the radios opened up in the TOC.”

A week earlier, the U.S. overseer of Iraq ordered a 60-day closure of a local newspaper, citing that it was inciting violence against Coalition forces. “This prompted wide-scale protests in the city, but no one was expecting what eventually happened,” said Dean. The Mahdi Militia, made of up of thousands of insurgents dedicated to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, attacked Soldiers of 1st Platoon, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, who were on patrol escorting a garbage truck through an eastern district of Sadr City. The platoon suffered numerous casualties and was pinned down in continued contact.

As platoon leader of the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), Dean directed three M1A1 Abrams tanks through the narrow and debris-filled streets to the intense battle that was raging. “Not to sound cliché, but the scene was reminiscent of the film Black Hawk Down,” Dean said. “In an effort to create obstacles for our tanks the insurgents had thrown bulk items like refrigerators and sinks in the road and set tires on fire, and they fought with an intensity that showed they wanted to decimate and destroy U.S. elements.” Having already turned in their main armaments, the QRF was low on ammunition and fought most of the battle “open hatch” style, using small-arms fire. For four hours, Dean and his men engaged the enemy, inflicting great damage but suffering casualties of their own. Dean himself received wounds to the neck and his arm, and his tank’s mechanic was killed. In the course of battle, Dean dismounted from his tank and ensured the defense of the casualty evacuation site, freeing 19 isolated infantrymen from the enemy.

For his actions that day, Dean was awarded the Silver Star in July 2004 and has now been named the 2015 Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms recipient. Presented by the West Point Association of Graduates, the Nininger Award is given to an exemplar of heroic action in battle, and its recipient becomes a representative of all West Point-commissioned officers who have heroically led Soldiers in battle. “Leading a platoon in a fire fight is a straight forward endeavor,” Dean said, “but living up to representing all West Point officers is a heavy responsibility and something that I can only hope to be deemed worthy after the fact.” However, as he told the Corps of Cadets in his speech upon accepting the Nininger Award, West Point prepares its graduates to lead, no matter the task.

Dean’s speech didn’t address the conflict for which he was being recognized, but he did emphasize that the multi-faceted relationship between a leader and his or her Soldiers was the reason for his success on April 4, 2004. He ended his speech by accepting the Nininger Award on behalf of his Soldiers of Task Force 2-37 Armor. “No one second guessed their duty that day,” Dean said prior to his speech, “and not knowing what they were going to see day after day going forward, they just went on like a well-oiled machine.”

The Corps’ reaction to Dean’s speech was overwhelmingly positive. For example, they gave him a thunderous round of applause for his first post-pleasantries line: “I must to confess to you all that I was an average cadet.” They also seemed to take to heart his message regarding an officer’s pride in his or her soldiers. “It was a very moving speech,” said Cadet Donnie Goff ’16. “Major Dean did a great job reassuring cadets, firsties especially, that we are ready to lead Soldiers.” Cadet Andrew Borer ’16 also found the speech reassuring. “He captured the bigger picture that cadets are always seeking and made us realize that all these challenges we endure as cadets will help us succeed later on,” Borer said. Cadet Pete Basnight ’16 echoed his classmates saying, “When I think about what Major Dean said we will be able to achieve under stress to what we are learning at the Academy, I find his message very inspiring and encouraging.”

Endowed by E. Douglas Kenna ’45 and his wife Jean, the Nininger Award is named for Second Lieutenant Alexander R. Nininger ’41, who fought the enemy to his death during the Battle of Bataan in January 1942 and posthumously received WWII’s first Medal of Honor. Click here to view photos of the award ceremony.