Separated by a couple of years and only a few miles growing up in Crittenden County, Jonathan McMackin and Chase Matthews were never closer than on March 19, 2007.
On that day, McMackin dragged a critically wounded Matthews from a burning humvee north of Baghdad, Iraq, despite his own broken leg and fragmentation wounds from an improvised explosive device. In addition to Matthews, who was driving the scout vehicle for fuel tankers headed south on the main supply route from Baghdad to Basra, the transport’s gunner, too, had been seriously injured in the blast.
“You never know how you might react until you get in that situation,” Lt. Col. D. Mike Farley, commander of 2nd Battalion, 123rd Armor of the Kentucky Army National Guard, said Sunday as he pinned a Bronze Star for heroism and bravery upon McMackin's chest. “He really stepped up.”
McMackin, according to his commendation, also fought off small arms fire during the ambush to assist his fellow soldiers, one pinned in the blazing vehicle and another knocked unconscious in the explosion.
Sgt. McMackin and Spec. Matthews, both graduates of Crittenden County High School now in their mid-20s, were soldiers with Bravo Company of 2nd Battalion at the time of the attack upon their convoy. Matthews, of Dycusburg, lost portions of both legs and much of the mobility in his left arm. The vehicle's gunner, also saved from the blazing humvee commanded by McMackin, was a Guard soldier from Minnesota.
His actions "undoubtedly saved Spec. Matthews' life," read 1st Lt. P. Barkley Hughes as Farley pinned the Bronze Star upon the uniformed chest of McMackin. The sergeant saluted his commanding officer as the 44 other soldiers who deployed with Bravo Company in 2006, as well as their their families, rose to applaud the actions of the Marion native. This all took place Sunday during the National Guard's Freedom Salute to all the citizens soldier who deployed to Iraq with the Marion unit."He was in the right place at the right time," Farley said of McMackin, following the hour-long ceremony held at the Carson Davidson National Guard Armory in Marion.
Matthews, who had just returned in time for the Thanksgiving holiday to his Crittenden County home from almost two months of continued rehab and therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., did not attend Sunday's recognition ceremony.
Instead, he sat outside the armory, far from the spotlight, in his shiny, new black SUV, patiently waited for his fellow soldiers to stop by for a handshake visit. His shy demeanor did not mask the pleasure he seemed enjoyed as the soldiers and their families greeted the quiet red-head."I don't think this could have happened to another guy in this unit that could have dealt with with this the way he has," the lieutenant colonel said of Matthews' uplifting nature. "I believe you could knock him in the head with sledgehammer, and he'd tell you he deserved it."
McMackin, the man who pulled his hometown buddy from the wreckage on that day in March, patiently waited for the crowd that had gathered around Matthews' SUV to filter away. When he leaned his head through Matthews’ open window, the two shared a few memories and some congratulations. Neither seems comfortable with the attention each has received.With a familiar smile on his face, Matthews said he returns to Washington Dec. 9 for ongoing therapy. His father Rudy, who has been by his son's side the entire time of his recovery, will undoubtedly also return to Walter Reed at that time. Spec. Matthews is still a member of Bravo Company, despite his injuries.
He will remain a soldier until the Army clears him medically. McMackin has recovered, and remains with the Marion unit, though a restructuring of the Kentucky Army National Guard has reorganized the former tanker unit of Bravo Company into an a detachment of A Company, 206th Engineer Battalion in Lietchfield, Ky. McMackin, who lives in Marion with is wife Megan, will likely retrain for duty with an engineering unit and remain in Marion.
Sgt. Mike Little, a former full-time recruiter with Bravo Company who enlisted both Matthews and McMackin, said the Army couldn't ask for two better soldiers. Little, also of Crittenden County, joined the local unit last weekend for its first time back in uniformed training since returning from Iraq this summer.Another soldier assigned to Bravo Company while in Iraq, Sgt. Thomas W. Clemons, 37, of Leitchfield, died of a heart attack last December while in Iraq. His family was also on hand Sunday to be recognized for their sacrifice.