September 16, 2016 - 8:21 pm
When an airman sang the last note of “God Bless America” at Friday’s National POW-MIA Recognition Day ceremony at Freedom Park, the youngest of 10 former prisoners of war on hand was so moved he stood and shouted, “Hoo-yahhhh!”
Retired Army Sgt. Christopher Yates had a lot to cheer about. After close calls with death on each of his three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq — including having his throat slashed by Iraqi insurgents — he was overwhelmed at how lucky he was to be alive and attending the annual ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base.
Sitting next to a Marine veteran who had escaped his captors early in the Vietnam War and behind a soldier who had endured the hell of Hitler’s Stalag VII-A camp at Moosburg, Germany, during World War II, the 32-year-old Yates was also battling survivor’s guilt.
“I was a medic. I had responsibilities and I wasn’t able to perform my job,” said the clean-shaven Army veteran whose handshake latches like a pair of vice grips. “Soldiers ended up losing their lives that day because my body wasn’t functioning correctly. Every day I feel responsible for it.
“I should have been able to get back up and still fight,” Yates said, pausing to corral his emotions. “I regret it every day.”
It was unclear when “that day” was. There are three incidents from his three tours that blend together in his mind.
The first was in 2004 when his unit from the 10th Mountain Division was clearing caves in Afghanistan.
“I got shot three times,” he said, pointing to his left arm. “I lost half this bicep. Got shot in my hip and shot in my leg.”
Then there was that day in August 2007 with an infantry division in Iraq. He still has two pieces of shrapnel in his back from an improvised explosive device that peppered his right side. Although he doesn’t think of himself as a prisoner-of-war, he was held captive by enemy combatants for hours until a quick reaction force came to his rescue.
And finally there was that day in 2008 when he was attached to a medical company in Ramadi, Iraq, that left him “half dead,” in his words.
First his patrol was hit by a vehicle-borne explosive device, followed by a suicide bomber. That left him unconscious and — he was told afterward by those who responded to the attack — insurgents took no prisoners this time.
Instead they tried to kill off the survivors. He was found bleeding with his throat slashed from ear-to-ear.
“We ended up having reinforcements coming in and they saved us. I had lost three units of blood. I was pretty much gone,” he said.
Somehow, after 475 days in hospitals in Germany and Fort Gordon, Georgia, he recovered and was medically retired in 2010.
Originally from Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Yates moved to Las Vegas in 2014 to help his parents recover from financial setbacks suffered during the recession.
He said Friday’s ceremony was meaningful not only because it gave him pause to reflect on “my brothers and sisters that fell while I was overseas” but also because of the nine other ex-POWs who sat with him: World War II veterans Dean Whitaker, Carroll Knutson, John W. Schwikert, Marvin Carter and Vincent Shank; Korean War veterans Rizalino Lastrella Aluague and Gene Ramos; and Vietnam War veterans Frederick C Baldock Jr. and Joe North.
“I have friends who fought in the Korean War and World War II and the Vietnam War,” he said. “I know the sacrifices they made. They were in a different conflict and they had to endure more during their capture because usually when they capture us now, they just behead us and kill us.”
He said that left him brimming with gratitude and respect for “the suffering that they had to put up with and then still move on with their lives here and contribute to society and help other veterans out as much as they can.”
Contact Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308. Follow @KeithRogers2 on Twitter.