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Major Matthew Chaney '01

2016 NIninger Award Recipient Speech

20 SEP 2016

General Caslen, Mr. Browne, distinguished guests, and the Corps of Cadets, Thank you very much for this honor.  I am truly humbled to represent the many West Point graduates who have led America’s Soldiers in combat.
As you all can imagine, preparing for tonight caused me to reflect on my days as a cadet.  Back then I kept a note on my desk.  The note read “It’s not just about me.”  ….That thought –It’s not just about me – often reminded me that I had volunteered, along with my classmates, to be placed into this crucible that is West Point… to prepare for something greater than our own individual ambitions. 

As a cadet, I kept myself going, knowing that each challenge we faced, whether it was preparing for a Saturday morning physics test,… or bouncing back from a “High-Zero” in gymnastics, each made us incrementally stronger– stronger for each other and stronger our future Soldiers.

This evening—and I promise I won’t take your entire evening—I want to share with you my experience in Iraq and how it relates to what you’re doing now.  But first, I’d like to recognize the families who bear the burden of having a son or daughter..., husband or wife…, father or mother deployed.  They are in the fight too… And they give us the strength to serve our great country.

Mom . . . Dad, I know it weighs heavily on you each time I deploy.  Thank you for your courage, prayers, and constant support.

And to my wonderful wife Sonya, who learned to clean out gunshot wounds so I could come home from the hospital early while she took care of our newborn son; who supported my deploying again only 7 months later, and who is now raising our three boys…often doing so alone.                

Sonya, you are an American Bad Ass—in the best sense of the phrase—a true patriot and my rock….  To my sons, Grayson, Colton, and Myles, I am so proud of the men you are growing into.

Sharing my team’s story this evening is meant as a tribute to my fellow officers, classmates, NCOs and Soldiers.  They have sacrificed deeply through many years of combat.  I owe my life to some of them.  Some… are no longer with us, but they are always with us in spirit.

In September of 2007, my Special Forces Detachment was operating in Samara, Iraq.  There I-S-I, the precursor to ISIS, had set out to inflame Sunni – Shia tensions.  I-S-I was using murder, kidnappings, torture, and all variants of the worst evil imaginable to terrorize the Iraqi people.  However, tribal leaders began to turn against I-S-I.  My detachment leveraged this new sentiment to broker a cooperative agreement with Iraqi tribal leaders…formerly hostile to our coalition.  Strategically, this was a big deal.  It marked a turning point in the fight against I-S-I.  One result of this new alliance was that we received detailed intelligence on a senior I-S-I leader.  We were told he  was operating out of a small, remote farm, and ISR indicated he was guarded by only 2 or 3 fighters. In response, we planned an air assault to insert my team of nine Green Berets, an Air Force JTAC,…and about a dozen Iraqi police.  Our plan was to dismount behind a hill offset from the farm…, set in our support position…, and move on foot toward the objective.

That night…it was pitch black. As our two Black Hawks buffeted through the sky, I had a strange sense of calm.  With the doors open, I watched through my night vision as small cooking fires passed below us.  I looked across the aircraft at Master Sergeant Jarion Halbisongibbs.  He was bobbing his head as if still listening Kidd Rock in our team room.  His smirk told me he was ready.  Master Sergeant Mike Lindsay, my second assault cell leader, sat on the other side.  Iraqi police were strapped into seats between us. And the remainder of our team was in the second Blackhawk, trailing behind.

30 minutes into the flight, the pilot reported that he could not land on the Primary Landing site.  Then, as we set course for the alternate LZ, the farm buildings suddenly popped into view.  The pilot quickly banked the bird and set us down only 25 meters from the target house.  As the Blackhawk lifted off, we started taking enemy fire from close range.  Our Iraqi partners, without the advantage of night vision…initially fled.  We saw that our second bird… had continued to the alternate LZ… about 500 meters away.   Enemy fire was coming at us from doorways and windows.  And we realized… we were clearly outnumbered.  With no cover …and too close to the enemy for air support, we had two options: We could turn and run—leaving our helicopters, teammates, and ourselves exposed to machine gun fire and RPGs, or… we could rapidly close with the enemy. 

Jar, Mike and I made the same decision—no communication was needed—speed and violence of action would be our security.  We maneuvered quickly across the open space to the primary target building, engaging enemy fighters as we moved. The three of us formed a stack on a first doorway.  Jar did the smoothest prep of a grenade I’d ever seen, and then tossed it through the doorway.  After the grenade exploded, the three of us flowed into the room—Jar, then me, then Mike, engaging fighters as we entered.  As we crossed the threshold, what turned out to be the ISI leader, squeezed off a burst of 7.62 from the corner of the dust-clouded room,… striking each of us below our body armor, just as Mike shot him.

I began to fall to the ground, but I was suddenly propelled from the building,… landing nearly 5 meters outside. Now entangled with Mike, I realized an enemy grenade or suicide vest had blown us out the door.  Unable to move my legs, but still under fire, I flipped my weapon to safe, rolled off Mike, adjusted my night vision and dragged myself a few feet to use a dead fighter for cover.  I began returning fire again.  Mike, with a gunshot wound to his stomach and shrapnel through his neck, transitioned to his pistol as he applied pressure with his free hand to the wound in his neck.  I threw an I-R chem-light behind him – a signal he should be treated first. Jarion, who had been blown into the corner of the room, emerged with his left thumb held on only by his glove.  He stepped over me to continue the assault, but was shot again in the stomach.  Without stumbling… he returned fire and killed his attacker.  Wounded and now in the open again, the 3 of us scrambled to defend each other. 

Meanwhile, running in full kit across a plowed field, our teammates -- Tony, Chad, Tim, and Matt -- laid down suppressive fire along with Terry & Carl who provided sniper fire from a Blackhawk overhead.  As they secured the remainder of the objective, our medic, Sean, bounced between the three of us with incredible skill and calm, and with complete disregard for his own safety.

After less than 15 minutes of fighting, an estimated 18 enemy fighters were eliminated, including our primary target,…And we rescued 2 Iraqi kidnap victims.  For their valorous actions, Master Sergeant Jarion Halbisongibbs was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Master Sergeant Mike Lindsay received the Silver Star.  SGM Sean Howey, our medic, received the Army Commendation Medal for Valor. 

Looking back on that night, I realized that we were all trained to size up a fluid situation and make the best decision available.  We were conditioned to do so fast, with little communication and complete focus on the mission. Our individual and collective preparation to that point in our careers had developed in us a MENTAL TOUGHNES. In my case, this preparation began on the Army Rugby fields, in the Patrols at Camp Buckner and in the classrooms here at West Point.  We had an edge over our enemy that went beyond firepower and mobility.   That edge enabled us to win against an entrenched and numerically-superior force.

You know…I think of this Mental Toughness as a learned ability to override natural human responses at will.  For example, fleeing or cowering from gunfire is a natural human response; choosing to move toward the flash of AK-47s is not. Ignoring the pump of blood leaving your body is unnatural; as is stepping out into gun fire to protect your teammates. 

Mental Toughness is developed each time you choose to override your natural human response to stress.  The West Point experience—chock full of stress—is incrementally building this in you.  Every time you choose to power through your weariness, pain, or other temptations, you become a little more resilient.

Now…I know that you hear something like this every day; however, you should be confident that what you are experiencing here at West Point is making you stronger.  Even …the humbling “High Zero” of gymnastics.  By the way, I think it was Dr. Tendy that gave me that “High Zero”--that still hurts—I tried so hard on that cartwheel.

Thank you for your attention this evening.  I look forward to serving with you in the years ahead. 

In closing, I’d like to thank the Association of Graduates, the Kenna Family and everyone here at West Point for the courtesies you extended me and my family.   
De Oppresso Libre!