When Chaplain Matthew Christensen went to counsel a soldier who was having a hard time, he didn’t realize it would escalate into a hostage situation.
Christensen — who was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, at the time of the incident — arrived at the soldier’s home to find him intoxicated and armed with a machete.
“He at first was suicidal but then grew more and more hostile throughout the evening,” Christensen said of the Feb. 28, 2015, night.
Eventually, Christensen said, another chaplain and the soldier’s roommate arrived, and the soldier was talking to some of his family members on speakerphone.
“He basically told them that they had failed him in his growing-up years to protect him from his abusive father,” the captain said. “Then he declared that he had three hostages, and that he was going to kill all of us that night to get back at his family.”
After about two hours, the soldier pinned his roommate against the wall with the machete.
“When he went to swing the machete, there weren’t too many other options but to physically jump in and grab and restrain the soldier,” Christensen said.
While Christensen had the soldier under control, the other chaplain kicked away the machete.
“All I was thinking of was how do we get out of this situation without somebody being hurt,” he said.
Capt. Matthew Christensen, an Army chaplain, received the Soldier's Medal on Tuesday at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Photo Credit: Patrick A. Albright/Army
Christensen said that although tackling a soldier isn't a preferred counseling technique for a chaplain, he knew he had to do something once the soldier was physically threatening his roommate.
Christensen received the Solder’s Medal on Tuesday for his actions that night in Alaska. He is now assigned to 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Recommended for the medal by his battalion commander at Fort Wainwright, the chaplain said he was “pretty surprised” when he found out it was approved.
“I thought it would be downgraded or lost in the system somewhere,” said Christensen.
The medal is awarded to a service member who distinguishes themselves by heroism that doesn’t involve actual conflict with the enemy, according to the Army.
'A soldier's chaplain'
Lt. Col. Joel Newsom, Christensen’s battalion commander who submitted the medal paperwork, said the chaplain’s priority was always to take care of the soldiers.
“What impressed me was Matt’s judgment and the fact that he waited until there were no other options until he physically restrained [the soldier] to prevent the loss of somebody else’s life,” said Newsom, who is now assigned to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley, Maneuver Center of Excellence commanding general, congratulates Capt. Matthew Christensen, along with his wife, Jessica, on receiving the Soldier's Medal.
Newsom said Christensen was on the ground at every training event at Fort Wainwright, whether it was foot marches or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in 20-below weather.
“Which is why soldiers trusted him and respected him and allowed him to do his job,” he said.
In Christensen’s personal time, Newsom said he would take soldiers on hunting and fishing trips to build relationships.
“To see someone so deserving receiving that really high-level award just thrilled me,” Newsom said.
According to the Soldier’s Medal citation, “Chaplain Christensen had only a moment to react and risked his own life to save the life of another soldier. His efforts made a difference and ultimately saved two soldiers' lives."
Christensen said he testified at the intoxicated soldier’s court-martial, and the soldier was able to receive extensive counseling through the military.
Besides the other chaplain who was there that night, Christensen credits his wife, Jessica, for being there emotionally.
“She’s been in the military alongside me, not as a service member but as a spouse, since 1993 — always supportive and always willing to be there even in difficult times like that,” he said.
Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.