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06-27-09, 06:46 AM
Marine honored for saving gunner from burning tank

By Kurt Schauppner
The Desert Trail
Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 6:24 PM CDT
TWENTYNINE PALMS — A Twentynine Palms Marine has been awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving a fellow Marine’s life after a training accident set fire to the inside of an ammunition-laden M1 Abrams main battle tank in June 2008.

Sgt. Christopher Phinney, a tank commander with 1st Tank Battalion based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, received his medal in a brief ceremony Thursday, June 18 at Lance Cpl. Torrey L. Gray Field on base.

Among those attending was Phinney’s father, Da-vid, who traveled from the family home in Auburn, Maine, to watch his son receive the medal he earned at the Combat Center on June 19, 2008.

“He’s bright, mischievous, lively, a good kid,” David Phinney said of his son.

According to information provided by the Combat Center, Phinney and his crew were conducting live-fire tank gunnery training when a charged main-gun round burst and spilled high explosive propellant throughout the tank.

“I know propellant is bad news in a turret,” Phinney said of his order for an immediate evacuation of the crew.

He added the tank was not on fire when he and two other crew members got out of the tank but was by the time he turned around to pull a fourth crew member, Lance Cpl. Jacob Tabaro, out.

Moments later, according to information provided by the Combat Center, the heat and flames blew Phinney from the top of the tank to the ground.

Phinney took some time before the ceremony to talk about his four years and nine months in the Marine Corps and his plans now that he is leaving.

During his tenure in the Corps, Phinney served two tours of duty in Iraq.

He downplayed his actions during the tank incident.

“I just reacted,” he said.

“I didn’t have much going on in my life,” he said of his decision to enlist.

He said he plans to attend college in the fall and study botany.

Phinney’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Gordon, had more to say about the young man and about Marines in general.

“Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how different Marines are,” he said, noting that in a fire most people run away while Marines run in to help.

Gordon noted that while others will praise Phinney’s courage, Phinney himself will say he simply did his job.

“I do pray that we all would have Sgt. Phinney’s courage,” he said.

Gordon said he was more inspired by Phinney’s actions after the accident, when he assembled a new crew and got its members trained and qualified in time to deploy to Iraq.

He also spoke of Tabaro, who, he said, is still recovering from third-degree burns over much of his body.

“Thank you for your courage,” he said to Phinney.

According to information provided by the Combat Center the Navy and Marine Corps Medal is the second highest non-combat medal awarded by the U.S. Department of the Navy to members of the Navy and Marine Corps.

The decoration was established by an act of Congress on Aug. 7, 1942. The Navy and Marine Corps Medal may be awarded to service members who, while serving in any capacity with the Navy or Marine Corps, distinguish themselves by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy. Typically, it is awarded for actions involving the risk of one’s own life.

The medal first was bestowed during World War II, although the first recipient is unknown.

A famous recipient of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal was President John F. Kennedy, who was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for service as commanding officer of the World War II motor torpedo boat PT-109.

Comments? Questions? E-mail Kurt Schauppner at kurts@deserttrail.com