MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. — Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James spent her final day in office honoring an Airman here Jan. 19, 2017.
Before a packed auditorium of base leadership, River Region community leaders and Air University students, James presented two Silver Star medals to Col. Christopher Barnett for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009 on two separate occasions.
Barnett, now an Air War College instructor of leadership and warfighting, was one of eight Airmen who received medal upgrades following the directed review of medal submissions by the secretary of defense in early 2016.
Approximately 150 medals awarded from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were reviewed and considered for an upgrade. Nine medals to eight Airmen were determined to not suitably reflect their actions and have been upgraded.
In Barnett’s case, the two Distinguished Flying Cross medals he earned in 2009 were upgraded to two Silver Stars.
“These stories quite simply blow me away, and they are inspiring when you think of the resiliency of our people, how they keep going against all odds and how they are so mission driven and particularly in the case of the Airman we honored today, Christopher Barnett,” James said following the medal presentation ceremony. “He was all about saving lives, and that’s the story of many of our Airmen who are recognized for valor. It’s about the team, it’s about completing the mission, and it’s about saving lives.”
According to the citations that accompanied his medal presentations, on April 4, 2009, Barnett, an HH-60G Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopter pilot, engaged with the enemy on four different occasions near Kajaki, Afghanistan, saving the lives of 40 U.S. Special Forces Soldiers and one Afghan National Army soldier.
Six weeks later, Barnett was called to action once more.
On May 19, 2009, he and his wingman braved intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded Soldier. Just a few hours later they were called out again to the same location to rescue another Soldier and deliver much-needed water and ammo to ground troops. When at the site, Barnett positioned his aircraft between the Soldiers and the enemy fire. The next day, he was called out to the same site to evacuate another fallen Soldier.
“The thing I most remember about it is the relief at the end of it knowing that all the guys that had gone in there were going to get to go home,” he said.
For Barnett, the medal presentation was a complete surprise, learning of the surprise visit from James only two days earlier.
Barnett said he was honored beyond belief that the secretary of the Air Force would spend her final day in office to come from Washington, D.C., to present the decorations in person.
“It’s great that she’s making sure that this gets done for some people who have had their review done on the decorations, because I think it’s important, and I think it shows a lot about her character; she’s looking at making sure these things get done,” he said.
After reading the names and highlighting the individual accomplishments of the first seven Airmen on her list who were getting medal upgrades, James referred to them as the “magnificent seven.” However, she said today was all about honoring the eighth Airman on her list, Barnett.
“These stories represent one percent; the military represents one percent of the American public. So one percent of the people protect the rest of us who are the 99 percent,” James said. “So we owe them a great deal. It’s very important that we tell these stories. It’s important that we thank them and that we thank their families, because there is an enormous sacrifice involved, and so it means everything to me that I get to do this on my final day.”