Thursday, February 19, 2009

The heartwarming story of Chief Master Sgt John Gebhardt

In my Inbox today... the story of Chief Master Sgt John Gebhardt, superintendent of the 22nd Wing Medical Group normally based at the US's McConnell Air Force base, Kansas, who gained worldwide attention for a photo of him holding an injured Iraqi child.

This is the story of this photo, originally taken around October 2006, when Chief Gebhardt was deployed at Balad Air Base in Iraq. It has been published on many websites worldwide and has been circulating via emails during the last two and a half years. Today, it arrived in my Inbox!

The story is a heartwarming one... and in complete contrast to the stories, that unfortunately we are accustomed to, that we still see daily coming out of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The young infant in Chief Gebhardt's arms, had received extensive gunshot injuries to her head (ghastly and clearly seen when zooming in on the image) when insurgents attacked her family killing both of her parents and many of her siblings.

Apparently, the 'chief' had a knack for comforting her and they often would catch a cat nap together in a chair.

The photograph generated a lot of attention when it first began circulating back in 2006. It is perhaps an indication of the photograph's simple but powerful symbolism that it continues to circulate more than two years later.

Chief Gebhardt is now back at home in Wichita, Kansas, with his wife, Mindy. They have a warm, hospitable home five minutes away from McConnell Air Force Base. His son Ryan, 25, and daughter Amber, 23, have long since outgrown being cradled and he said he thought about them constantly while he held the Iraqi child.

"I got as much enjoyment out of it as the baby did," he said.

"I reflected on my own family and life and thought about how lucky I have been."

His affection for children is no secret to his wife, Mindy. While dating John in high school, she watched how he bonded with the child of a coach of one of his athletic teams. That softer side of him is one of the reasons she married him.

"People see him as this tough guy," she said, "but I always see that other side of him that is full of compassion."

The chief, who grew up in Jordan, New York, is not at home in the spotlight. When asked to talk about himself, he always tries to switch the focus to the other military people who served with him at Balad.

While deployed to Iraq, the chief tried to help out any way he could. He figured holding a baby that needed comforting that would free up one more set of arms that could be providing care to more critical patients.

"If I have an opportunity to help out, I look for that opportunity," he said. "They had more than enough to do."

The chief was not alone in volunteering at the hospital. There were more than 800 different volunteers at the hospital during the time he was deployed to Iraq, he said. Some of them volunteered so much that he mistakenly thought they were assigned to the hospital.

When Mindy describes the best qualities of her husband, the first word out of her mouth is integrity. She said the photo of her husband and the Iraqi child truly represents him. She believes he has been so successful because he is such a straight-shooter and puts others' welfare ahead of his own.

"He never leads anyone astray," she said. "He will never do something for himself that would have a negative effect on someone else. He always tells it like it is."

But, the chief attributes his success to his family.

"Without their support I don't know where I would be," he said. "I definitely wouldn't be in the position I am."

And it is the chief's hope that families in Iraq will receive the same kind of support in the future. They are just like American families, Chief Gebhardt said.

"I pray for the best for the Iraqi children," he said.

"I can't tell the difference between their kids and our kids. The Iraqi parents have the same care and compassion for their children as any American."

Life is calmer for Chief Gebhardt now that he is back home, and even though his recent 'fame' has highlighted an eventful 27-year career, he said he wouldn't change a thing.

"If I had to do it over again, I would sign up and give it another ride," he said.