If she could, Katie Celiz would trade it all away.
She’d give up the lavish welcome to the White House, the congratulations and well wishes, if she could just have her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz back.
If Katie had her way, Chris would walk through the front door of her house and she’d embrace all of him: his baby face and greying hair. He’d tuck their daughter, Shannon in his arms, and carry her around the living room. He would be cracking jokes and relishing his time with his family, as he always did.
Instead, in the valleys of Afghanistan, Chris gave his life. He did it because his fellow Soldiers and their U.S. allies could have died if he did not. He gave his life because his country needed him to.
Chris passed away on a barren stretch of desert in the south Asian nation because his innate moral compass compelled him to act, to defend those who could not defend themselves. Acts of bravery had become routine for the Army Ranger.
In an elite unit of the Army’s most highly trained, disciplined Soldiers, Chris had managed to stand out even among the best.
News of Celiz’s exploits even reached the Pentagon, as then-Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville learned of Chris’s heroic acts from his son, an emergency helicopter pilot.
On a clear July morning in Paktia Province, Chris risked himself for the last time, using his body to shield U.S. Soldiers and allies from enemy fire. The 32-year old Soldier did not survive his injuries.
The Defense Department honored Chris with the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on Dec. 16.
Not that Katie is not grateful for the honors and dedications bestowed in her husband’s memory. The Ranger community and families of his fellow Soldiers who knew Chris have invited Katie and her daughter for countless dinners. Rangers even helped Shannon with her science project.
For this and for receiving the nation’s highest military award for valor, Katie is eternally grateful, she said.
But if Katie had one wish, Chris would be alive.
The ‘worst day’
On a summer morning in July 2018, Katie heard the sound of a vehicle door closing in the family’s driveway. Thinking it might be Chris, Katie hurried to the front steps. She had been waiting inside the family’s Savannah, Georgia home for Chris to return from his seven-month deployment to Afghanistan.
But it wasn’t her husband.
Instead, she saw two uniformed Soldiers walking to her porch.
Instantly she knew.
She braced herself for the moment military spouses dread.
“I just thought this can’t be real,” Katie said.
As she opened the door and listened to the Soldier’s words, everything became a blur.
“Ms. Celiz,” the Soldier began. “I’m sorry ma’am.”
She can recall bits and pieces of what the Soldier said. She only knew that Chris would not be coming back. Chris had suffered fatal wounds on a mission in Afghanistan. Her daughter, Shannon, had been hiding, hoping to surprise her dad.
Shannon heard the entire thing. Just weeks before, Shannon had celebrated her eighth birthday. Chris told his family earlier he likely would not be able to call.
He decided to anyway, making a FaceTime meeting with his daughter.
They laughed and talked about how Shannon went ice skating for her birthday and the presents that she received. Chris told his wife and daughter that he loved them and would see them soon.
Days later she learned, Chris would pass away.
But instead of breaking down when she saw the two servicemen at her doorstep, instead of letting a flood of emotions well up inside her, Katie remained numb. She resisted the urge to mourn or cry.
Chris would have wanted it that way, she said.
“It was my way of protecting myself,” Katie said. “Just shut it all off. Just listen, try to process it and move forward. Chris was very big on not dwelling on the past.”
“Push forward, never go back,” she recalled Chris saying.
But Katie could not help but feel angry that fate had taken her husband from her.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Katie said in 2019. “That moment, life itself was over for me, I felt.”
The hardest months
After Chris’s death, months of therapy followed for both Katie and Shannon. During that time, fellow Rangers and their families lent their support; they invited Katie and Shannon into their homes for dinners, the way that Chris did for his troops.
Members of Chris’s platoon would drive by the family’s house and check on them almost daily. Rangers helped Shannon with her school project and one even attended her school’s Hanukkah play.
“They took her under their wing,” Katie said.
Shannon, who has her father’s beaming smile, had grown very close with her dad. Chris would take Shannon on piggyback rides when he went for a run through their neighborhood in Savannah.
After Chris had passed, she battled extreme depression and anxiety. During her third-grade school year, the Jewish day school she attended helped her maintain her grades as she grieved for her dad.
Katie had to cope with losing the love of her life.
“It was agonizing,” Katie said. “It felt like my whole world had come to an end.”
On March 8, 2019, then-Maj. Gen. Mark Schwartz, the deputy commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command, placed Chris’s Bronze Star upon Shannon’s shoulders in a ceremony at Hunter Army Air Field, Georgia, to honor her father’s actions.
Two months later, the Tunnels to Towers organization donated a new, two-story home to the Celiz family in Chris’s honor.
The outpouring of support helped Katie and Shannon move forward. Katie still keeps Chris’ old military uniforms, including his dress blues. She still has his favorite Ranger poster hanging on the wall of a small library she put together in the family’s home.
Katie said that even though the pain of losing Chris will never fully subside, they can continue honoring his memory.
The couple met during high school in 2002, but their paths didn’t cross until they both worked at the local BI-LO grocery store in Summerville, South Carolina.
One afternoon at work, Katie could not find her jacket. And when she returned from a break, the jacket mysteriously reappeared. The vanishing act continued for a week until during one shift she caught Chris pushing carts while wearing her jacket. Later that day when she returned from break, she found her jacket in the break room laced with rose petals.
“I thought it was cute,” Katie said. The couple would date for several years and later married in 2007.
She said Chris stood out among his peers because of his acceptance of others. He made friends with students of different backgrounds.
Early in his Army career, he grew frustrated with leadership in his unit, Katie said. He wanted to become a better mentor for Soldiers, making it a point to know his fellow Rangers outside of duty. He encouraged them to take additional training programs. And would even check on his fellow Soldiers’ lives at home with their families. “That way when they came to work, they could perform the way they needed to be performing,” Katie said.
Chris’s concern for people from different walks of life eventually led him to change religions.
During a sermon at a church the couple attended, a pastor’s harsh words denouncing groups of people appalled him.
“He almost walked out,” Katie recalled. “He was really upset.”
Chris began researching religions online. The couple converted to the Jewish faith, finding solace in the religion’s acceptance of others. The couple eventually enrolled their daughter at a Jewish day school in Savannah, and Chris would help his daughter with her schoolwork.
Gone too soon
The day Chris left for Afghanistan for his seventh deployment, Katie recalled the couple’s last conversation.
“Please,” Katie recalled saying. “Promise me you won’t be a hero. Just come home to me, no matter what.”
“You know I can never promise what’s going to happen,” Chris replied.
Katie knew her husband and that he would always do what he felt what right.
Joining the military had been his life’s calling. Chris joined junior ROTC while in high school and after graduation enrolled at The Citadel, an academic institution in Charleston, South Carolina that trains cadets to become military officers and also educates non-military students. Chris later left the school to pursue his goal of working in Army Special Forces.
Chris knew that the months of separation would take its toll on his family. During deployments he’d send emails and hand-written letters to his wife. For Shannon, he recorded videos of himself reading books.
His peers said, he created a family environment, even in the hostile environments of Afghanistan.
During his 2018 deployment to Afghanistan, Chris did his best to create camaraderie with his unit. He hosted horror movie nights with fellow Soldiers. Inside the windowless barracks, he’d strum his guitar, singing Chris Stapleton or Dave Matthews Band songs to lighten the mood after the unit embarked on dangerous missions.
In the early hours of July 12, 2018 while riding through Paktia Province in eastern Afghanistan, Celiz and members of the 75th Ranger battalion performed a security sweep on a secret mission.
They had orders to perform reconnaissance and clear the area of enemies. The Soldiers’ thermal vision gave them an edge during night operations, said now-2nd Lt. Garrett White, who then served as an enlisted radio operator on the mission. As they encroached upon the ruins of an old storage shelter, daylight began to peak through Afghanistan’s mountains.
The Soldiers of First Battalion remained wary of enemies hiding in the shadows.
“Once it starts getting light,” White said. “We're on their turf. They know where we are.”
At about 5 a.m., insurgents armed with AK-47 rifles surrounded the convoy and fired upon the group. A bullet struck an ally in the chest, critically injuring him.
Chris, seeing his unit being fired upon, sprang into action. “Boys,” White recalled Chris saying. “It’s going to be a good day.”
Exposing himself to the enemy onslaught, he retrieved a heavy weapons system, clearing a temporary path for teammates to treat a critically wounded ally.
White and other Soldiers joined Chris in unleashing a wave of rounds against the ambushing insurgents. Chris’s swift actions allowed U.S. forces to take fire superiority away from the insurgents, suppressing enemy fire, White said. The insurgents retreated to reassess their strategy and regroup.
Chris’s onslaught allowed the medical team to reach cover and treat the wounded.
Then a young Ranger on his first deployment, White said Chris’s actions rallied him and his fellow Soldiers.
“I was inspired,” White said. “[Chris] was so confident and steady in his decision-making process.”
In minutes a medical evacuation helicopter arrived, whirring above the firefight. Instantly Chris knew that the aircraft had to be defended, and again he exposed himself to enemy rounds, putting his body between the medical evacuation team and the insurgent gunfire.
The swarm of enemy fire grew so heavy it created plumes of dust.
“The ground looked like it was boiling,” White said.
The rhythm of the fight moved quickly and that morning in 2018, White said he didn’t have time to fully process what happened as the enemy closed. But the days following the battle made Chris’s actions more clear.
“He really was selflessly body blocking that litter team and that helicopter crew as they were loading the casualty on the bird under a tremendous amount of fire,” White said.
Chris remained in his position until the recovery team had full cover and the helicopter had taken flight. Only when he saw the chopper ascend upward and away from the firefight did Chris seek cover for himself.
Standing feet away, White saw Chris finally turn, enemy rounds ricocheting off the ground near his boots. Chris had been struck in the chest. Somehow, Chris managed to stay upright for a few seconds more.
The Soldier looked up toward a member of the crew and waved them off. Chris knew if the helicopter remained, it would risk more lives and it could possibly crash.
“He put himself last and everybody else first,” White said.
With the dust and bullets swirling around him, Chris finally collapsed from his wounds. He turned and attempted to crawl toward his teammates before he became unresponsive.
Fellow Soldiers ran to Chris and pulled his body away from the gunfire. In less than two minutes they called the medical helicopter back to retrieve Chris.
It was too late.
Later reports revealed at least 20 insurgents had attacked the unit.
White, who would go on to officer training school, now leads Soldiers as a commissioned officer.
“I think about that day all the time,” he said. “Not to grieve … but I'm still very inspired by his actions, and I hope that as a leader, I can have an ounce of Chris’s selflessness and clarity of thought and his sense of purpose.”
At Chris’s funeral in Savannah’s Mickve Israel synagogue, every member of Chris’s unit that could attend, attended. Even Soldiers and onlookers who didn’t know Chris as well joined in paying their respects. The church filled to its capacity and some had to be turned away.
In the days leading up to her husband’s medal ceremony last December, Katie said she and her daughter are now in a better place. Both mother and daughter stood next to President Biden to receive the Medal of Honor on Chris’s behalf on Dec. 16.
Katie said she and her daughter will try to move forward, as Chris would have wanted them to do, as Chris had always encouraged them to do when dealt with setbacks.
“I know he would be proud,” Katie said of the medal. “But Chris … would probably just shrug it off. He didn’t make a big deal about awards or anything like that… He didn’t actually like being the center of attention.”
When asked how she wanted her husband to be remembered, Katie paused for a long moment. “He was just a man who loved his family,” she said. She recalled an excursion the family took six years ago.
Always moving forward
In August 2015, the Celiz family took a trip to Georgia to hike along the Appalachian Trail.
Chris, Katie and Shannon went up Blood Mountain, whose peak rises 4,458 feet above the northern Georgia wilderness.
During the trek up the mountain, Shannon, then 5 years old, lost her footing and began to tumble down the slope. She rolled along the ground until she hit a tree.
The impact made a small cut on her forehead.
“Shannon are you okay?” Katie recalled Chris saying.
Shannon didn’t cry. Instead, the couple watched as their daughter got up from the tree, gathered her backpack and began walking back toward the trail.
“What are you doing?” Chris said.
“I’m doing what you taught me dad,” Shannon said. “I’m walking it off. I’m going to be okay.”
“That’s my girl,” Chris said.