Former resident honored for service

House to be built for veteran Christopher Bales through 'Operation Finally Home'

Carmen GeorgeJanuary 10, 2013 

He was in a dry riverbed in Afghanistan in 2010 when the shooting began -- a rain shower of bullets falling upon his fellow soldiers in an open flat in the distance, ringed by horseshoe-shaped mountains.

Cpl. Christopher Bales, then a sniper with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne who grew up in the Coarsegold area, warned his platoon sergeant earlier that day that the enemy was closing in around them, and to move the group of about 40 soldiers -- but to no avail.

Now, he watched his men struggle to find cover in the barren flat. They hit the ground in an attempt to get as small as possible as shots fell upon them from four large machine guns positioned in the mountains, each manned by two men.

"For them, it was like shooting fish in a barrel," Bales recalled.

His instincts told him what he needed to do.

Equipped with no weapons at the time that he could use to effectively fire at the enemy at such a distance, he hopped on his quad and drove out into the flat as a diversion, in hopes to give the soldiers time to flee and get to shelter.

His plan worked.

"I was the only guy that got shot -- it worked out really well," said Bales, who rode around on his quad with his spotter Christopher Romig, who joined him on another quad. Bales was shot twice, first in the lower back, and again about ten minutes later -- a bullet that sliced through his left thigh, about six inches above the knee. The bullets severed three main nerves and left his left leg almost completely paralyzed from the knee down.

Stephen Page, director of corporate sponsorship for Operation Finally Home -- a nonprofit that's built, or is in the process of building, 52 custom made mortgage-free homes in 11 states for wounded and disabled veterans -- heard of Bales' story from a former colleague, an Army recovery care coordinator.

In search of another veteran to build a home for, Page and Lori Darnell, executive assistant for the nonprofit, arranged to meet with Bales.

"One thing that stuck out more than anything was his humility," Darnell said of Bales. "Here's a man who literally drew fire on himself so his whole unit could get to safety. When I questioned him, 'When did he decide to do that so they could get to safety?' He looked at me almost as if I asked a really crazy question."

"I believe that soldiers would have died that day, because there was nowhere to go," Bales said. "My thought process -- and maybe it's just wishful thinking -- but I like to think it (driving his quad out as a diversion) at least saved someone from getting injured, and possibly saved someone's life, and that was the only reason I left the watty (riverbed)."

"I remember doing an interview with him one night, and you look at his spine and it's just curved like a snake, and he turns and looks at me and says, 'Chief, if there's someone else more deserving for this home, give it to him,'" Page said. "And here's a guy who was going to go back to California and refurbish a barn to have a home -- where does that spirit come from? He's a man of integrity, service to country above self, and excellence in everything that he does."

On Nov. 4 at the Tennessee Titans Veterans Day football game, he received the surprise of a lifetime.

Thinking he was being invited onto LP Field with other veterans, Bales was surprised to find it was only him and with his three young sons -- Keenan, Aiden and Noah, parents Kathi and Don Bales, Page, and Rusty Carroll, director of corporate marketing for LP Building Products, a major sponsor of Operation Finally Home.

After a huge American Flag shaped like the United States was carried out by a group of soldiers and a singing of the National Anthem finished, Bales was handed the game ball to hold up amongst a packed stadium as people cheered.

Bales was ready to get off the field when country singer Kix Brooks appeared on a huge screen above the stadium, telling him he would receive a home.

"That was pretty amazing," Bales said. "That's just such a huge thing. I don't know how anybody is really worth that kind of gift, I definitely felt like I wasn't."

"Chris and I have been to San Antonio, Texas, that's where they do prosthetics, and you can't imagine the injuries," said mother Kathi, a teacher at Mountain Home School Charter in Oakhurst. "You almost feel like you've been transported to another planet, there's so many. You really see the ravage of the war ... So when it was brought to his attention that he was being considered for a house -- he's seen too much. He's seen too many soldiers, far more injured than him. He said, 'Mom, why would they ever consider me?' He's honored, but humbled by it."

"If I were king for a day, I would submit that guy for a Medal of Honor for what he did," Page said. "He stuck himself out there and took some rounds, and thank God he survived it."

Bales served two tours of duty, deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008, and redeployed in 2010 to Afghanistan. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries.

"I think Chris Bales has been given, through his injuries, an opportunity -- believe it or not -- the opportunity to change the views of many other people around him, and Chris Bales will succeed," Page said. "He's driven, he's inspired, he's got just a magnificent heart and is just a humble man."

"I've been very proud of Chris for many years and he's overcome a lot of things, and pretty much on his own," said his father Don, who owns Bio-Tech in Coarsegold. "He is the kind of dad I wish I could have been -- he makes time (for his children). I really appreciate how he's developed as a man. His sense of himself, his sense of his children, his priorities."

Construction on the new home, worth about $300,000, is scheduled to begin by this spring in Las Vegas. Operation Finally Home pays for what services and materials they can't get donated.

"The people that are involved with Operation Finally Home, and there's so many, those people are really what makes America the best place in the world," Bales said. "It's people like that -- people that just want to serve ... That is truly, in my opinion, what our founding fathers had in mind for America."

"I think a lot of times we only think big, and we have to think small," Darnell said. "It's just one at a time. We placed one family in a home at a time. And I hope people are inspired to do the same thing in their family and community."

"It's kind of like that story about the person who, while walking along the beach, throws out a starfish that has floated up the sand and couldn't get back to the water," mother Kathi said. "And someone says, 'What do you think you are doing? There are millions of them out here. Your impact is so small.' And that person holds the starfish up and says, 'For this one, I've made a difference.'"

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