June 6th, or what is better known as D-Day, will long be remembered for the invasion of Normandy in 1944. For many, June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day, is better remembered as the day Sgt. Christopher R. Hrbek was born. Westwood, New Jersey, Sgt. Hrbek’s hometown, is located in Bergen County and has a population of about 11,000. It is well steeped in small town charm and a lasting sense of community pride – a perfect playground for the wildly energetic young man with his ever engaging personality and contagious smile. Chris was as handsome as he was friendly – quick-witted with a heart as big and as bright as the sun. He was a boy scout, high school wrestler and an always willing and confident participant in many school and community activities. Simply said, Chris enjoyed Westwood and Westwood happily embraced the kid who never had a bad day!
Chris’s commitment to his community and his fascination with the fire service was nurtured at a young age by the countless days he spent tagging along to the Westwood fire house with his stepfather Jaymee.
Chris longed for the day when he could join the fire cadet program at the age of 16, as his interest in the Marine Corps was steadily growing. During his sophomore year of high school, Chris got his wish and joined his friends, Billy and Melissa, as cadets in the Westwood Volunteer Fire Department. That year, he also made his first visit to the local Marine recruiting center. His interest was immediately piqued and the challenge to become a United States Marine is one he would gladly accept.
Chris’s decision and deep rooted purpose to join the Marines was made clearer by the horrific events that unfolded on September 11, 2001. Chris had proudly attended, only three days earlier, graduation ceremonies for his brother Jim, who had completed his New York City Fire Academy training. September 11th was Jim’s first day as a New York City firefighter. On this fateful day, 343 friends and brothers were tragically lost; thankfully Jim was not one of them. Nine months later, on his 18th birthday, Chris’s first order of duty was to report to his recruiting office and enlist in the United States Marine Corps.
After waiting two long years Chris’s plan began to take shape. He graduated from Westwood High School later in June 2002, took the FDNY test in December – in preparation to join Jim after his enlistment was up – and proudly left for Parris Island in January 2003. Chris demonstrated, early on as a Marine, his commitment to excel. His outstanding behavior quickly gained him the attention and respect of his superiors and enabled him to swiftly move up the ranks. It was not long before Chris became Sgt. Hrbek – a trusted leader and a Marine’s Marine who loved every minute of his service to his country.
While deployed in the Middle East, Chris was notified by the NYC Fire Department that his number had come up and his dream of joining the FDNY would become a reality. Sgt. Hrbek deferred his opportunity, however, and reenlisted in the Marines for two more years. Again, 1½ years later, the FDNY called and again he deferred. This time, Sgt. Hrbek reenlisted for four years, all along knowing that his dream of being a fireman could be in jeopardy. But this “Happy Warrior’s” work as a Marine was not quite done. Sgt. Hrbek received his paperwork in March 2009 advising him that he would deploy to Afghanistan that November. He planned to put an exclamation mark on his career and complete Drill Instructor training upon his return in May 2010. Chris intended to finish his 10 years with the Marine Corps as a Drill Instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, where he would proudly mold many young men into United States Marines. Only then would he finally be ready to fulfill his dream of becoming a firefighter for the City of New York.
Afghanistan was different than any other deployment. Sgt. Hrbek and his battery found themselves under constant attack. Their patrols were dangerous and injuries mounted. On December 23, 2009, during one such patrol outside the wire, Sgt. Hrbek witnessed a Sgt. Major step on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The Sgt. Major suffered critical injuries, including the loss of both of his legs. While under heavy fire, Sgt. Hrbek and a Navy Corpsman quickly assessed the situation and immediately ran to the aid of the Sgt. Major administering what would later amount to life saving medical assistance; controlling the loss of blood and swiftly moving the Sgt. Major and two other less seriously injured Marines to waiting helicopters. Chris recounted this heroic act during his call home on Christmas Day, as though it was nothing. He was just doing what he had been trained to do. His actions on December 23rd earned him the Bronze Star with Valor. On January 14, 2010, three weeks after his heroic actions, Sgt. Christopher R. Hrbek was again on patrol in Helmand Province when the vehicle he was riding in hit an IED. Sgt. Hrbek exited the vehicle to assess the damage and to check for secondary explosive devices, as the safety of his men always came first. Sgt. Hrbek stepped on an IED and was killed instantly. He was 25 years old.
Sgt. Hrbek returned home to Westwood for the last time on January 21, 2010. His small town’s sense of pride was on full display this day as they welcomed their hero home. The streets, as far as you could see, were lined with American flags of all sizes, while countless firemen and military brothers joined with thousands of grateful residents to pay tribute and say thank you.
Sgt. Christopher R. Hrbek had a plan. He lived his life with pride, determination and honor. He was fearless in his pursuits and had an insatiable appetite for adventure. Above all, Sgt. Hrbek always knew how to have fun! His story and his inspiration will live on forever.
- Written by Sgt. Hrbek's Mother, Cheryl Hodges