Airman receives Purple Heart for injuries sustained during convoy in Iraq

MADISON, Wis. -- Members of the 115th Fighter Wing work hard to recognize Airmen for their accomplishments -- even when they are too humble to consider their feats and triumphs as "award worthy."

Tech. Sgt. Cristian A. Bennett, 115 FW assistant program security manager, is an Airman who does his job and accomplishes tasks put in front of him. According to those he has deployed with, he doesn't need recognition and he is content knowing he has successfully accomplished his mission. But his coworkers felt Bennett deserved recognition.

Bennett was awarded the Purple Heart during a ceremony Feb. 3 in front of his wife, parents, loved ones and friends. He earned the award for wounds received seven years ago when his Humvee was blown up by an improvised explosive device during a deployment to Iraq. Bennett's guests and other 115 FW members not only heard about the attack on Feb. 24, 2006, but speakers also told stories of the courage, determination and dedication Bennett has shown throughout his Air Force career.

Maj. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin, addressed Bennett's family. He let them know how much he appreciates their support and the things they've gone through. He also made it a point to address Bennett personally.

"I am proud of your service as an Airman. You've shown bravery, commitment and dedication," Dunbar said. "I am grateful that you are healthy and back with us."

Master Sgt. Ron Hartley, 118th Airlift Wing, was the combat commander during Bennett's deployment. He told the story of that day with vivid description.

"We had been working for 14 days straight," Hartley said. "It was supposed to be our day off."

Most service members who've deployed know days off are never a guarantee. The mission comes first. The team headed out, on their day off, to help provide a security escort of civilian contractors to Forward Operating Base Diamond-Black.

There were three Humvees and one armored security vehicle on that mission. Bennett was the gunner in the third vehicle.

Hartley recalls feeling a vibration and a large shock wave as the convoy passed a choke point over the bridge. All he could see was a big cloud of black smoke. After asking his team for their status, he remembers hearing his gunner say, 'Oh, God. It's black. They're gone.'

"I couldn't even see the Humvee," Hartley said. "It didn't look like there could be any survivors. The vehicle was a total loss. Even the wheels were gone."

Hartley remembers Bennett immediately pulling himself into the turret. Bennett, who has also been awarded the Combat Action Medal, refused medical treatment at the time and continued to provide security during the rescue operations.

"I couldn't be any more proud of him than if he was my child," Hartley said. "Sergeant Bennett is a true embodiment of the Airman's Creed. That's just him. That's just the way he is."

The gunner's blast suit worn by Bennett was pitted and scorched. The ballistic face mask he wore had been hit and partially penetrated by a piece of metal the size of a pencil eraser, at eye level. If he hadn't been wearing that shield, Bennett probably wouldn't be alive to receive his award, Hartley said.

Bennett may not feel the need to highlight his story -- but actions often speak louder than words.

"He will inspire young generations about what it means to be a man, a man in uniform and an American," Dunbar said.
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