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Major Matthew Chaney '01

2016 NIninger Award Recipient Story

West Point was a somewhat different place when Major Matthew Chaney ’01 was a cadet. Chaney is the 2016 recipient of the Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms, and he returned to the Academy on September 22, 2016 to address the Corps of Cadets as this year’s representative of all West Point-commissioned officers who have heroically led soldiers in battle. “We weren’t an Army in conflict back then,” said Chaney, a member of the last class to graduate before the upheaval that followed with 9/11, in a pre-speech interview. “We might have heard from a Vietnam-era officer or perhaps one who served in the Gulf War, but no one was focused on picking up every element of combat knowledge.” Given the actions for which Chaney was being recognized and the conditions of the Army upon their graduation, current cadets were soaking up every word Chaney uttered at the Nininger ceremony in Washington Hall. [See Photos on Flickr]

On September 10, 2007, then-Captain Chaney was serving as detachment commander for Special Forces Operational Detachment 083 of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He had been in country since May of that year, and since March the team he took over had been conducting missions on high-value Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, an arm of al-Qaeda at the time) targets. “In most cases, our element of surprise was exceptionally good, catching most targets in bed,” Chaney told an interviewer, noting that his “pretty senior team” had conducted more than 50 such missions before the night of September 10.

On that night, Chaney led nearly two dozen U.S. Green Berets and Iraqi National Police on a dead-of-night raid of a rural farming complex on the outskirts of Samarra, Iraq to bring down Abu Obaeideah, an ISI kingpin who was responsible for weapons smuggling, kidnapping, torture, and murder. The plan was to dismount behind a hill 500 meters from the target, set up support positions, and move on foot towards the farm house containing the target; however, standing water prevented their Black Hawk from landing at its primary site. Chaney, two Green Berets, and the Iraqi police were forced to dismount only 25 meters from the target house without the benefit of cover. Worse, brown-out conditions from their Black Hawk forced a second helicopter carrying the other half of the assault team to land a considerable distance away. Immediately, Chaney and his team began taking on fire from doorways and windows from an insurgent force that significantly outnumbered them. Without the benefit of night-vision goggles, the Iraqi police became disoriented and fled. Chaney told the Corps assembled in the Mess Hall, “With no cover and too close for air support, our options were to turn and run or rapidly close with our enemy—no communication was needed—speed and violence of action would be our security.”

Chaney and the two Green Berets maneuvered quickly to the primary target building, engaging targets as they moved. Using a grenade as cover, they burst through the door. In the fire fight that ensued, they killed the high-value target, but they also got shot. Then, an enemy grenade or suicide vest detonated, blowing Chaney and a fellow Green Beret five meters outside the building. Unable to move his legs, Chaney dragged himself to a dead ISI insurgent for cover. With a gunshot to his hip and with a broken tail bone and a concussion from the blast, Chaney was still able to take down an insurgent who was firing at him from another building’s open doorway. Then, noticing that a member of his team was bleeding from the stomach (gunshot) and neck (shrapnel), he threw an IR chem-light behind him to signal to the team’s medic, who was sprinting in full kit across 500 meters of plowed field along with the rest of the detachment from the second Black Hawk. Chaney’s second team member emerged from the target building with a wound in his stomach and “his left thumb held on only by his glove,” and the two of them engaged and killed more attackers.

After 15 minutes of intimate fighting, the compound was secured. Chaney and his team were creditied with killing 11 ISI fighters, including the high-value target. An estimated 18 fighters were on the objective that night. They also rescued two Iraqi kidnap victims. For his gallantry and leadership in action against the enemy that night, Chaney was awarded a Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his wounds received in combat.

“Looking back on that night, I realized that we were all trained to size up a fluid situation and make the best decision available,” Chaney told the cadets. “In my case, this began on the rugby fields and in the training areas and classrooms of West Point.” For the remainder of his speech, Chaney stressed to the cadets the concept of mental toughness, which he believes West Point incrementally instills in cadets every day, preparing them for the stresses of life as well as the Army. “Every challenge you overcome or shake off—such as the humbling ‘high zero’ of gymnastics, which I once received—is building your mental toughness,” Chaney said. “Every time you ignore weariness, pain, or other temptations, you become more prepared.”

Cadets, such as Amanda Blanco ’17, took Chaney’s message to heart. “We get so caught up in the day-to-day life here—academics, sports, duties—but listening to Major Chaney made me realize that we are doing all these seemingly tedious thing for a bigger cause.”

Presented by the West Point Association of Graduates (WPAOG) and 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 World War II’s first Medal of Honor. In addition to recognizing the recipient for his or her bravery as an individual, WPAOG regards the recipient as a given year’s representative for all West Point-commissioned officers who have heroically led soldiers in combat.

“Throughout its history, West Point has produced leaders of character who have served our nation with valor and distinction,” said the Superintendent, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen ’75, in his remarks opening the ceremony. “Major Matt Chaney is one such leader of character, who has displayed extraordinary valor and heroism in combat in the spirit of Lieutenant Nininger, and who truly embodies the West Point values of Duty, Honor, County, as well as the values of our Army.”