Capt. Joseph W. Payton and Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth A. Foss
1st Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office
There’s an old adage that says, “History is made every day.” However, that history does not stand the test of time unless someone is willing to share it.
U.S. Army Ranger, 1st Sgt. Christopher Cunningham, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, believes in telling the story – whether it’s his own story or the stories of the comrades he lost.
“I think it’s important!” Cunningham said. “Whatever you do, you have to do it.”
Cunningham shared the story behind his own enlistment. He was talking to his older brother Tim, and he asked, “Do you think I should join the Army, because I have been talking to a recruiter.”
“Don’t sign anything (unless) you see ‘Ranger’ on your contract,” he recalled his brother telling him.
He remembered those words of advice, and when the counselor at the Military Entrance Processing Station handed him paperwork that did not say “Ranger” within the text, he politely handed the paper back.
“I said ‘I’m not going to sign anything until it says Ranger,’” Cunningham said.
At 19 years old, Cunningham started preparing for what he knew would be the biggest challenge of his life. He recalls running the two miles – there and back – to work at his brother-in-law’s restaurant every day.
“One day, the construction workers building a home along my running route asked me what I was doing,” he said. “I said ‘I’m getting ready for the Army; I’m going to be a Ranger.’ They replied, “Well you better put some weight on your back, son.”
So he did.
Months later, he stood in formation about to be formally recognized as an Army Ranger.
“Does anyone want to pin the scroll on their Ranger?” an instructor shouted at the final ceremony of Ranger training. At the time, Private Cunningham wasn’t expecting anyone to be in attendance for him. His father, with whom he hadn’t spoken in years, walked up and pinned the tab on his son.
“I didn’t know anyone was there, especially my dad,” Cunningham said.
That memorable day left a strong impression upon him as he prepared to begin life as a U.S. Army Ranger.
It seems the Army is in his genetic code, because Cunningham’s Family has a long history of service to the nation. His grandfather, his father and his three brothers have all served in the Army.
In 1974, then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams ordered the formation of the Ranger Battalions with the expressed intention that they would set the standard for the Army. Cunningham is the epitome of this standard; he lives by the Ranger Creed each and every day.
Many years, and many battles later, Cunningham pinned on the rank of first sergeant on the 12-year anniversary of his involvement in the battle on Takur Ghar Mountain in eastern Afghanistan, March 4, 2002. This entanglement with al Qaeda and Taliban forces was the deadliest battle of Operation Anaconda, the first large-scale operation in the war in Afghanistan and one of the deadliest of Operation Enduring Freedom to this day.
“We lost two guys within seconds of coming off the ramp (of the Chinook),” Cunningham said. “It was 18 hours of craziness. It was a long firefight; that was my first.”
At the time, Cunningham served as an M-249 squad automatic weapon gunner in the 1st Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, aligned with Combined Joint Task Force Mountain, led by Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, then 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander. Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, were part of the lead force in Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot Valley.
The seasoned Ranger wears a bracelet with the names of the brothers he lost in the Battle on Robert’s Ridge. Any time someone asks him about the bracelet, he tells the story, gives the bracelet to the individual, and tells that person to share the story with another, in hopes of carrying on his friends’ legacy. He then replaces the bracelet, he explained humbly.
Cunningham was later assigned to 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, where he would deploy again to fight in the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan alongside his friend, Sgt. 1st Class Jared C. Monti.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Monti is his smile – he was always smiling,” Cunningham said.
Most people at Fort Drum know of Monti as the Medal of Honor recipient for whom a fitness center is named. Monti is much more than the name of a hero to Cunningham; he was a good friend whom he fought alongside. Cunningham was with Monti during his final moments.
On that day, Cunningham found himself in another fierce and prominent battle with more than 50 Taliban insurgents. After Cunningham took cover behind a boulder, his fighting position received a heavy barrage of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades that blasted the trees situated near him.
After his second attempt to retrieve his injured Soldier, Monti was hit by enemy gunfire, Cunningham remembered.
“Cunny, tell my Family I’m at peace with God,” Monti yelled to his battle-buddy.
Ten years later, the battle-hardened Ranger was deployed yet again to fight in eastern Afghanistan – this time, coincidentally, in the unit he supported more than a decade earlier: 1-87 Infantry.
This deployment would prove to be a completely different challenge for Cunningham. He was accustomed to the harsh mountains and conditions fighting in Afghanistan. This time, his expertise would be put to a different use: sharing his knowledge and experience training the Afghan National Security Forces to fight the enemy rather than fighting the enemy himself.
Throughout the deployment, he trained the ANSF with 1-87 Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team. He now serves as first sergeant for A Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment.
Recalling the past, moving forward
“It’s a little sad, but I got a couple of those days in my life where I catch up with people that I have been through a lot with,” said the Vermont native. He frequently speaks with the parents of Sgt. 1st Class Monti and the Families of many other fallen comrades.
“The best thing you can do for your Soldiers and for yourself is to get together and talk about it,” Cunningham said.
These days, the battle-tested leader is sharing the lessons he has learned from his many difficult and life-threatening experiences with the Soldiers in his company.
“We all have to get together and talk about what we did so each person can come to terms what happened,” he said. And it’s important to reach out to the Families, he added.
Cunningham lights up as he talks about his own Family. He attributes much of his success to his wife, Holly, and his two children, Hudson, 5, and Ceci, 2.
“She’s doing great! She’s doing awesome. She has her hands busy with our two kids,” he said.
Apparently, his wife has inspired him to make another significant life change. She is health-focused and aspires to return to school to study nutrition. He smiles as he shows the healthy food in his office cabinet.
“I just quit smoking,” he said, pulling out his cell phone. “Let’s see! It’s been two months, six days and 11 hours ago, and I’ve saved $556.69 – that’s 1,310 cigarettes. And whenever I feel like a smoke, I pull this out and then say, ‘I’m good.’”
His motivation for quitting smoking is the motorcycle he will buy with the money he saves after kicking the habit.
Cunningham’s happy to be alive today, as he acknowledges the many dire situations he faced in combat. As a warrior, he delights in carrying on the legacy of his brothers. As a leader, he impresses upon his Soldiers the lessons experienced only by him and others who have been where he has been. As a husband and father, he recognizes the contributions he has made for his Family’s future.
May Cunningham serve as a walking reminder of the courage, selfless service and sacrifice exhausted on Robert's Ridge and the many other battles that claimed the lives of his Soldiers and friends, our fallen heroes.