MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — Phillips Brooks, the American Episcopal clergyman who authored “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” once said, “Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”
The quote from a renowned Christian lyricist mirrors the life of Air Force Special Agent Chester McBride, killed in action Dec. 21, 2015.
“We had heard on the news that something had happened,” said Special Agent Helen Stewart, the commander of Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 405, at Maxwell Air Force Base. “The first reaction was just disbelief. I tried to keep my emotions in check because I wanted to be positive. No Airman’s life is more valuable than another, but my immediate thought was to Chester.”
McBride enlisted in the Air Force in 2008 as a security forces member, serving at Moody AFB, Georgia. Revealed as a mature, sharp Airman by all who knew him, the NCO was recruited to serve as a member of OSI in 2012.
Shortly after arriving at Det. 405 in 2012, Chester began pursuing a deployment. In years past, multiple deployments were canceled. While frustrated with the progress, the native of Statesboro, Georgia, continued to excel. He graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from Valdosta State University, continuously standing out among his peers. He was offered a position in the FBI once his active-duty service commitment ended.
McBride, postured for success both in and out of uniform, finally got his wish: a deployment to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in October 2015.
“He was so excited about the deployment,” Stewart said. “While he missed his family here, his bond with his deployed family was strong. Constantly sending us pictures and contacting us often about the experience he was having over there, I knew he believed in the mission he was doing.”
While on a joint patrol outside of Bagram, McBride and five other American troops were attacked and killed by a suicide bomber. While the investigation is still underway, first-person accounts describe McBride’s final moments as characteristically heroic. The former Savannah State University football player shielded his linguist, laying down his life for his teammate. She is alive today because of McBride.
“Immediately, I tried to FaceTime him, but he didn’t answer,” Stewart said, fighting back emotions. “Then I sent him a text message, but he didn’t answer.”
During the time that the Air Force was notifying McBride’s parents, social media had already narrowed the unknown status of her Airman for Stewart. Aware that her subordinate was gone, but without official notification from her chain of command, she couldn’t gather her unit to give them the news.
“We couldn’t be officially notified until they (family) were,” she explained. “That was the longest, toughest day of my 15-year Air Force career. When I finally received the notification, it was devastating. I didn’t know the details, just of the loss.”
After trying to figure out how to take care of his family in Georgia, Stewart turned her attention to the unit, wondering, “How are we going to be OK?”
With grief still present throughout the detachment, and after a funeral for McBride in his hometown, Maxwell AFB organized a memorial in his honor Jan. 13.
Pain and tears spread throughout the silent auditorium as co-workers told stories of their wingman’s loving heart and his affection for their families, but mostly of his smile.
“The stories about him would be the same if told in the past, not after the incident,” Stewart said. “His small moments of being a true wingman, spanned from pacing everyone during their PT test to his final moment of heroism, showed the man Chester truly was. He believed in the Air Force’s core values 100 percent, and he lived them. He was always there, always willing and most of all he was always a wingman … always.”
McBride was posthumously decorated with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star with Valor, and an Air Force Combat Action Medal, adding to his Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal with one oak leaf cluster, and Army Achievement Medal.
Stewart said that when Brig. Gen. Keith Givens, the commander of Air Force OSI, told McBride’s family at their home in Georgia about Chester’s final moments , they weren’t surprised to hear of his heroics.
“That act was him,” Stewart said smiling. “That is who he was, the ultimate wingman. I knew he had my back and everyone’s back in here. He is the guy you want to go to war with. That was Chester McBride. That’s his legacy.”