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Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division pins the Soldier's Medal on Sgt. Christopher Cafaro, at a ceremony in Friedberg, Germany, on Monday. Cafaro was awarded the Army's highest peacetime honor for saving lives during a fire at the Joint Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany in October, 2005. Cafaro and MacFarland recently returned to Friedberg from a 14-month deploymet to Iraq.
Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division pins the Soldier's Medal on Sgt. Christopher Cafaro, at a ceremony in Friedberg, Germany, on Monday. Cafaro was awarded the Army's highest peacetime honor for saving lives during a fire at the Joint Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, Germany in October, 2005. Cafaro and MacFarland recently returned to Friedberg from a 14-month deploymet to Iraq. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

FRIEDBERG, Germany — Sgt. Christopher M. Cafaro on Monday was awarded one of the Army’s highest decorations for valor, but he’d trade it, he said, to bring just one of his fellow soldiers back from death.

Cafaro, a member of 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, returned last month from a nearly 14-month deployment to Iraq, but the award wasn’t for anything he did there. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest decoration given to soldiers for valorous acts committed out of combat, for something he did before his unit even left Germany.

That day was, in more ways than one, a preview of what the unit would face in Iraq.

On Oct. 5, 2005, his brigade, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, was preparing to leave the Joint Multinational Training Center at Hohenfels, Germany. The unit had just wrapped up a rehearsal in preparation for its upcoming deployment to Iraq when an explosion rocked the camp’s dining facility.

“This was probably what literature majors would call foreshadowing [of] the type of heroism and personal sacrifice that characterized the Bandits’ entire deployment,” Col. Sean B. MacFarland, 1st BCT commander, said at the award ceremony at Ray Barracks.

A fuel tank that was being drained as the brigade struck camp ignited and injured two Germans who were emptying the tank and a handful of soldiers who had been nearby. Cafaro and other soldiers ran to the scene to help.

One of the Germans ran right into Cafaro. The second German walked out of the containment area where the tank was, “and he came out and he was on fire, like literally on fire,” Cafaro said.

Cafaro and another soldier were able to extinguish the flames and began treating the man, whose skin had melted, Cafaro said.

Moments later, somebody screamed from off in the distance that there was going to be another explosion.

“I just happened to glance over,” Cafaro said, “and there was a pool of fuel” on the ground.

The valve between the truck and the tank was still open, and the growing puddle of burning fuel threatened to blow up the truck. One soldier sprinted away and dove into a bunker. Cafaro didn’t run. He didn’t put any thought into what he did, he said; it just clicked. He ran over to the valve, switched it off and kicked dirt into the burning puddle of fuel until it was snuffed out. Then he went back to administering aid to the most badly burned German.

He was credited with preventing more injuries or deaths that might have resulted from another explosion. There were still soldiers in the dining facility, Cafaro said.

“It may have been the dumbest thing I’ve done,” he said, but if he didn’t, 10 or 15 other soldiers could have been injured or killed.

“The hardest part about it was, even though it was a peacetime thing, you know, for people who aren’t used to seeing things like that, it was a reality check of what was yet to come when we go to Iraq,” he said.

He lost a lot of friends in his 14 months in Iraq, he said.

“If I could, I would trade this to bring home one of the brothers we lost in a heartbeat,” he told his comrades after accepting the award.

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