It was a cold February night in Anchorage, Alaska, when Capt. Matthew C. Christensen, a chaplain in the U.S. Army, received a desperate message from a soldier who was contemplating suicide.
Christensen quickly responded and found the man intoxicated and upset. As a chaplain since 2009, Christensen had counseled hundreds of servicemen and women, as well as their family members. But he had never experienced anything like this night.
The soldier became extremely agitated, screaming about his family and abuse that he experienced as a youth before grabbing a machete. Another chaplain and the soldier’s roommate joined Christensen in the room, trying to calm the man down. But the situation intensified.
“He was intoxicated or on some type of substance, which completely clouded his judgment and mixed all his emotions in,” Christensen recalled. “He went from being suicidal to being homicidal.”
The soldier told them he had three hostages and that his intent was to kill the three men. He swung his fist at the other chaplain and thrust the machete into the wall before pinning his roommate against the wall. That’s when Christensen acted.
“Right at the moment he pinned his roommate, he turned his back to me and gave me the opportunity to grab him from behind, pull him backwards and restrain him so the other chaplain could get the machete lose,” Christensen said.
Christensen held the agitated soldier on the ground while the military police responded. The soldier was eventually court marshaled and sentenced to hard labor. He also received extensive counseling.
“As far as I know, he’s gotten out of the military now and is productive in society,” Christensen said. “My hope and prayer is he continues to stay on the right track and has a good second shot at life with everything that happened.”
Christensen’s act of heroism that night in 2015 earned him a special honor recently. At a large ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia on March 14, the Kalispell native and 1992 Flathead High School graduate received the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest honor for valor in a non-combat situation.
“It was an amazing thing. His life was in danger and I’m just glad that he got the award while alive and not posthumously,” Christensen’s mother, Susan Heppner of Polson, said. “It could’ve went either way. His faith played a huge part in what he did.”
Faith has played a large role in Christensen’s entire life, and it led him to serve both God and his country as a chaplain. After graduating from Flathead High, Christensen attended the University of Montana for one year before enlisting in the Army in 1993. He served until 2000, and during that time, he met several chaplains who left a lasting impression on his life and showed him a unique way to minister. He returned home to Kalispell, where he met with Darold Reiner, the longtime pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church.
“I went and talked with him about wanting to serve as a pastor,” Christensen said. “He encouraged me and helped me through the process.”
Christensen attended Concordia Seminary before becoming an active-duty Army chaplain in 2009.
He said he appreciates the unique role of being a chaplain, who provides religious counseling.
“Chaplains are responsible for protecting the religious freedom of all soldiers, whether they have a faith background or no faith background at all,” he said. “You’re able to be out there providing counseling support, moral support, but you also get to provide religious services.”
Christensen estimates he has spoken with more than 100 soldiers who have been suicidal, and he has tried to help them any way he can, even if it doesn’t end up involving religion.
“I always leave it up to the individual soldier if they want to go down that road and talk about my faith perspective,” he said.
He will often have people contact him and thank him for helping them through difficult times in their lives. At the award ceremony last month, in front of his son, who is active duty in the military, and other family members from Montana and service members, Christensen likened his service to the life of Jesus, who sacrificed to save others.
“As a chaplain, I really appreciate that I’m able to serve God and country at the same time,” he said.