Thursday, January 14, 2010

Marine Sgt. Christopher R. Hrbek

Remember Our Heroes

Marine Sgt. Christopher R. Hrbek, 25, of Westwood, N.J.

Sgt. Hrbek was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C. died Jan. 14, 2010 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

WESTWOOD -- On Christmas Day, Marine Sgt. Christopher Hrbek called home to Bergen County from Afghanistan with the news he had been nominated for a Bronze Star.

A fellow Marine, a master sergeant, had been gravely injured by a bomb buried in the dirt. Under heavy enemy fire, Sgt. Hrbek and a Navy corpsman had rushed to the man’s aid, applying tourniquets to the stumps of his severed legs and carrying him to safety.

Family members learned today Christopher Hrbek will receive the award posthumously.

Hrbek, 25, a married Westwood native, was killed Thursday when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Helmand Province, his family and the Department of Defense said. He had previously served three tours of duty in Iraq.

“He was born a Marine. He wanted to die a Marine,” said Beau Hodges, 28, Hrbek’s stepbrother. “He was proud to die for his country.”

Sgt. Hrbek is at least the 14th service member with ties to New Jersey to die in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. At least 96 others have died in Iraq since 2003.

A full-size flagpole springs from the lawn of the brick, colonial-style home where Chris Hrbek grew up with his mother, Cheryl, and stepfather, JayMee Hodges. An American flag and a Marine Corps flag flew at half-staff today. Relatives gathered throughout the day, by turns crying and laughing as they shared stories.

Once a slight kid who had been afraid of the dark well into his teens, Christopher Hrbek grew into a fearless, muscled warrior who planned to make a career of the Corps.

“He loved it over there,” said another stepbrother, Jim Hodges, 31. “He wanted to do this for the rest of his life.”

Hrbek made the point to one of his two sisters, Amy Dellentash, in a recent phone call home, after she had learned of his nomination for the Bronze Star. He had spoken of three-hour firefights and of coming under attack every time his unit went out on patrol. Amy Dellentash, 33, knew American service members were falling.

“I knew he was at war and in a terrible situation, and I just wanted to know if he was really okay,” she said.

She said her brother responded, “Are you kidding me? I love what I do.”

Sgt. Hrbek’s admiration for the Marine Corps took root as a sophomore at Westwood High School, where he was a member of the wrestling team and something of a class clown, relatives said. He began reading and watching movies about the Corps after scoring well on a physical evaluation used by the service, his family said.

Seven months after graduation, he was off to Paris Island for basic training. His service brought him to Iraq three times, first in 2005. He served again from February to September 2007 and then from August 2008 to March 2009. He left for Afghanistan in November. Hrbek was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Family members said Hrbek might have taken a different route, fighting fires instead of wars. Both his stepbrothers are firefighters in New York City, and his stepfather is a member of the Westwood Volunteer Fire Department. Hrbek, too, began volunteering at age 16.

The lure was strong. Beau Hodges said his stepbrother had a place in the academy last year in the New York Fire Department but chose instead to re-enlist in the Marines.

Sgt. Hrbek’s career kept him away for long stretches from his wife, Jamie Hrbek, 23, but in an interview this evening at her Emerson home, she said distance and time never seemed to take anything from their relationship.

When they first saw each other three years ago, it was only for a few seconds, she said. She was a waitress in a local restaurant. He was a customer. Hrbek was about to talk to her when he was summoned to a fire scene. It would be a month before he got her number from a friend.

“We could have said we loved each other without really seeing each other,” she said.

They talked for six hours in that first phone conversation. Late in 2007, they married. “I could say a thousand things about him,” she said. “He was filled with a sense of adventure.”

His personal decorations include two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, the Combat Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, and a number of campaign and service decorations.

Sgt. Hrbek also is survived by his wife Jamie Wengerter Hodges, father Richard Hrbek of Emerson, mother and step dad Cheryl and JayMee Hodges, step brothers Jim and Beau Hodges and sister Amy Dellentash as well as the members of the Westwood Volunteer Fire Department.

Marine Sgt. Christopher R. Hrbek was killed in aciton on 01/14/10.

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