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Hurlburt Field airman awarded Silver Star Medal for service in Iraq

Staff Sgt. Christopher Lewis, a combat controller with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, was honored with the medal for his heroic actions while deployed in Mosul, Iraq, in Operation Inherent Resolve.

U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

By BRITTANY CARLONI | Naples Daily News, Fla. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 20, 2018

A 27-year-old Fort Myers native received a Silver Star Medal — the third-highest military combat award — Friday afternoon at Hurlburt Field, a U.S. Air Force base in Okaloosa County, Florida.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Lewis, a combat controller with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, was honored with the medal for his heroic actions while deployed in Mosul, Iraq, in Operation Inherent Resolve. During a 10-hour firefight, he helped secure the safety of his Special Operations team and more than 300 partner soldiers, according to the Air Force.

“It’s obviously a team effort, and I couldn’t have done it without my joint team members and the confidence of those overhead,” he said.

Christopher Lewis, the son of Elizabeth and Steven Lewis of Fort Myers, grew up in a neighborhood east of Interstate 75 near Alico Road. In 2008, he graduated from Estero High School, where his parents said he played quarterback and safety positions on the football team.

Since 2012 he has been stationed at Hurlburt Field, which is an hour east of Pensacola, with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron. Hurlburt Field is home of the First Special Operations Wing, the Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command, an Air Force major command and a number of other units.

Christopher Lewis was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 and 2015 before serving in Iraq in 2016. As a special tactics operator, Christopher Lewis is the liaison between air and ground forces.

In Iraq, Christopher Lewis was embedded with a U.S. Navy SEAL Team that was responsible for assisting Kurdish peshmerga forces in clearing villages held by Islamic State group fighters.

“I had only been with this team for two weeks before we started moving south toward Mosul,” Christopher Lewis said.

Christopher Lewis said the urban fights in Iraq, where the Islamic State had seized control, were different from his experience in Afghanistan, where he performed helicopter assault missions in more open terrain.

On Oct. 20, 2016, Christopher Lewis and his team were ambushed while escorting Kurdish peshmerga forces into enemy territory. When his team tried to separate themselves from enemy forces, the .50-caliber turret, which sat atop Christopher Lewis’s military vehicle, stopped working.

“My time, at least that day, was spent up in the turret and basically taking sporadic fire and trying to maneuver the peshmerga to take clearance. You’re trying to identify where you’re taking contact from,” Christopher Lewis said. “It’s just really hard to do in an urban environment.”

Over the next 10 hours, Christopher Lewis remained in the open turret, taking on direct enemy fire. During that time, he directed airstrikes within 400 meters of his team, which took out enemy positions and fighters moving towards them, according to the Air Force.

Christopher Lewis identified and destroyed a vehicle-borne explosive device, which was quickly approaching his team at high speeds, the military said.

“Being in that severe of a firefight for 10 hours, it's just ups and downs of adrenaline, especially when you’re encountering things you weren’t expecting,” he said.

As Christopher Lewis’s Special Operations Force moved away from the attack, he said U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan, the lead explosive technician, identified an improvised explosive device in the ground and directed the team to stop.

As the team backed away from the minefield, Finan’s vehicle hit a series of improvised explosive devices, which detonated, destroyed a vehicle and left Finan mortally wounded.

After the explosion, Christopher Lewis left his vehicle and, while still under fire, arranged for a medical evacuation as he tried to save Finan's life.

Finan did not survive. Christopher Lewis credits Finan's sacrifice as the reason the rest of the team survived.

“He probably saved all of our lives that day by identifying that and getting us out of that situation,” Christopher Lewis said.

At the end of the day, Christopher Lewis made it through the 10-hour fight with no injuries, although he said he came close to being hurt a million times.

When the fight was over, the team slept for a few hours and continued the mission for months to come, Christopher Lewis said.

Christopher Lewis and his family had always discussed the possibility of him joining the military, his mother said.

He had no idea what route to take until a family friend, who was involved in the Special Forces, pointed him to Air Force Special Tactics.

“He told me this was definitely the right choice to make,” Christopher Lewis said.

He joined the Air Force in December 2009. Over the course of three years, he made his way up the pipeline.

Elizabeth and Steven Lewis, his parents, remember hearing from their son after the Iraq firefight.

He told them about Finan's sacrifice, his mother said, then Christopher Lewis assured them that he was OK.

“It’s terrifying as a parent to read that and to know that’s your child. People look at him and see a hero. I look at him and see my son. I’m extremely proud of him,” she said.

In the months after that October day in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Christopher Lewis and his team cleared through other villages and kept pushing south towards Mosul. Christopher Lewis said the team got into more firefights but no one else on the team was killed.

He returned to the U.S. in Dec. 2016, his parents said.

At Estero High School, staff was notified a few months ago that Christopher Lewis, one of their own, could be nominated for the Silver Star Medal.

When Melissa Roche — an Estero High School English teacher who has taught at the school for 20 years — heard the news about her former student Christopher Lewis, she had some of her current students write letters of thanks to his command post around Thanksgiving.

Roche remembers him as a polite student who was on time and completed quality work in class. Lewis’s family was involved at the school while he participated in sports, she said.

“It’s absolutely amazing that he has served his country so well and served his brothers in the service so well,” Roche said. “It really warms my heart that he’s OK from taking all those risks. He’s got to be an inspiration to other people that know him and are around him.”

Friday afternoon, surrounded by a crowd of 57 family members and friends, Christopher Lewis was awarded the Silver Star Medal in a ceremony officiated by Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Lewis said he was uneasy about receiving the award at first. He had trouble accepting the recognition that comes with it.

His loved ones reassured him, he said.

“You just want to make sure you’ve done everything you can to deserve that,” he said. “I’ve come to peace with it and accepted it. Most importantly, my teammates support it and tell me I deserve it. That’s what I needed to hear.”

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©2018 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

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