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Private earns division's first Iraq Silver Star

BAGHDAD -- An 18-year-old private earned the first Silver Star medal awarded to a soldier from the First Cavalry Division serving in Iraq, after he helped fight off a deadly guerrilla ambush in May that killed two of his companions and wounded five.

Private First Class Christopher Fernandez of Tucson received the Silver Star from the division's commander, Major General Peter Chiarelli, on Aug. 13. The Silver Star, the military's third highest combat medal, is given for uncommon valor in combat.

Fernandez, a Humvee machine gunner, is credited with holding a band of insurgents at bay while his companions gathered wounded and dead soldiers from a vehicle disabled by a roadside bombing. The ambush took place May 5 in west Baghdad.

One soldier that carried the dead and wounded to safety, 33-year-old Sergeant Timothy Buttz of Bloomington, Minn., was decorated with the Army's Bronze Star medal with a special commendation for valor.

"After the [bomb] went off, I noticed their Humvee was taking fire, that's when I started shooting back," said Fernandez, a quiet, lanky young man who wears glasses.

Fernandez ran out of ammunition for his M-249 machine gun. He sprinted to the disabled Humvee and grabbed a damaged M-240 heavy machine gun and dashed back to his position to continue firing. The M-240's protective hand guards had been blown off and Fernandez said he burned his hands in about 10 minutes of sustained shooting.

"I knew I had to do something. I could've gotten myself killed to do it," said Fernandez, interviewed at First Cavalry headquarters near Baghdad International Airport.

The two soldiers who died in the attack were 19-year-old Private First Class Bradley Kritzer of Irvona, Penn., and 18-year-old Specialist James Marshall of Tulsa, Okla. Buttz said the two were unconscious in the back of the disabled Humvee, along with two of the wounded soldiers.

"I moved them from their Humvee to mine," Buttz said. Kritzer and Marshall died en route to their base, he said.

Since March 2003, 124 Silver Stars and 399 Bronze Stars have been awarded in the Iraq conflict, according to Pentagon figures.

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