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Arctic Guardians Honored for Al Asad Evacuation

  • Published
  • By Maj. David Bedard,
  • Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - A small armada of Iranian Qiam 1 precision theater ballistic missiles speared over the Arabian Desert, bound for targets on Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.

In the crosshairs of the Jan. 8, 2020, Iranian missile attack were Arctic Guardians of 211th Rescue Squadron. The missiles, far more accurate than the 1991 Persian Gulf Scud missiles, leveled bunkers, barracks and other key Al Asad infrastructure. Fortunately, no 211th RQS Airmen were in the targeted areas.

In a conspicuous demonstration of airmanship, the 211th RQS loaded their two HC-130J Combat King II combat search and rescue aircraft to the brim with squadron aircrew, maintainers and support personnel – three times – evacuating them to an alternate location and reestablishing the rescue mission.

For their actions, a dozen Arctic Guardians received awards, including a Bronze Star, 10 Air Medals and an Air Force Commendation Medal during a Feb. 11, 2023, ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Alaska Air National Guard Lt. Col. Patrick McBride, current 211th Rescue Squadron commander, recounted the actions of squadron memers assigned to the 26th ERQS while deployed to Iraq. He said that following the receipt of critical and timely intelligence the night of Jan. 7, the squadron’s two HC-130s, callsigns ADMAN 11 and ADMAN 12, were sortied to evacuate squadron Airmen.

“ADMAN 12 departed at a nearly unprecedented gross weight with well over 100 souls on board – many with standing room only – with the intent of returning for a second loadout,” McBride said. “ADMAN 12 landed at an alternate operating location safely outside of the threat area, offloaded all passengers onto a taxiway, and was back airborne in under 8 minutes.”

“The second HC-130 – callsign ADMAN 11 – departed Al Asad Air Base at a similar maximum gross weight and capacity en route to the alternate operating location,” McBride continued. “The window of vulnerability for the attack began [late evening].”

McBride said ADMAN 12 crew members didn’t stop to think about the risks during their 8 minutes on the ground at the alternate location.

“Despite warnings of imminent attack on the air traffic control radio, ADMAN 12 landed back at Al Asad inside of the vulnerability window,” he said. “The final 60 individuals were uploaded after Lieutenant Colonel Armstrong personally ensured 100 percent accountability.”

McBride said ADMAN 11 crew members were equally eager to return to aid their fellow Airmen from a regular Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter combat search and rescue unit despite the impending attack.

“ADMAN 11 landed and offloaded their passengers to safety, then immediately launched to return airborne as a communication and refueling platform for the Group’s three HH-60 helicopters and other assets airborne around the base,” McBride said. “[Early morning January 8], the first of 11 Iranian theater ballistic missiles struck the flight line and other nearby areas on Al Asad.”

McBride said ADMAN 11 became an aerial command center critical to the successful evacuation.

“ADMAN 11 refueled the HH-60s, resolved airspace deconfliction for airborne AC-130[J Ghostriders], MC-130[J Commando IIs], and MQ-9 [Reaper drones] while air traffic control and radar coverage were degraded, and they maintained an over-the-horizon communication link with the Joint Personnel Recovery Center,” McBride said. “As they remained in the immediate area, a second volley of missiles struck the base. The crew of ADMAN 11 then coordinated an emergency air refueling from a KC-135 [Stratotanker] to remain on station as long as possible to support the base post-attack before finally recovering to the alternate operating location.”

After ensuring the safety of squadron Airmen, McBride said the next priority was the continuity of the Central Command rescue mission.

“As soon as it was determined the attack had ceased, the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron was tasked to reconstitute the CENTCOM personnel recovery alert as soon as possible at the new location, which would require returning to Al Asad to recover as much equipment that was left behind as possible,” he said. “The third crew, under the command of then Maj. Jeremiah Brewer, became ADMAN 11, and they and ADMAN 12 both refueled and again launched with 40 personnel to assist in the recovery of critical equipment landing at Al Asad as rubble littered the smoldering flight line.”

McBride said both crews completed two sorties back and forth, transporting more than 38,000 pounds of weapons, maintenance tools, communications equipment and personal belongings to complete the mission after more than 30 hours of continuous combat operations.

McBride asked all members of the 1st Expeditionary Rescue Group, the higher headquarters for 26th ERQS, to stand in recognition for earning the Gallant Unit Citation.

Established in 2004, the GUC recognizes units that distinguish themselves by extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.

“As first responders to Al Asad following the attack, the rescue group’s decisive actions saved the lives of 255 Airmen and preserved combat search and rescue capabilities from the first ballistic missile attack on United States and coalition forces in over 30 years,” the GUC citation reads.

The Bronze Star was awarded to Col. Joshua Armstrong, 176th Operations Group commander, who was then a lieutenant colonel commanding the 211th RQS at JBER and the 26th ERQS at Al Asad.

The BSM was established in 1944 and is awarded to service members who distinguish themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement or service while engaged in an action against a U.S. enemy.

Armstrong set the conditions for a speedy evacuation during an exercise in country where the unit practiced a large-scale mobilization.

“[Armstrong] forward-deployed four expeditionary squadrons and five aircraft, validating operational plans for the contingent mass mobilization of rescue forces,” the BSM citation reads. “These efforts proved critical on Jan. 7, 2020, when the group received intelligence of potential missile attacks on several bases in Iraq. Intuitively, Colonel Armstrong executed a retrograde to remove the rescue group’s Airmen from imminent danger and to preserve the low-density, high-demand rescue capability of the two HC-130J aircraft and pararescue teams.”

The Air Medal was awarded to Tech. Sgt. Dustin Brown, Capt. Trevor Bunkers, Tech. Sgt. Michael Cashman, Staff Sgt. Jasmine Chavez, Tech. Sgt. Derek Hansen, Capt. Daniel Kozak, Capt. Matthew Soukup, Capt. Ben Van Alstine, Maj. Anthony Waliser and Maj. Andrew Williams.

The Air Medal was established 1942 and is awarded to Airmen for meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.

Armstrong highlighted the actions of the HC-130 loadmasters.

“Our loadmasters, led by Senior Master Sgt. Jason Apalategui, acted without hesitation, performed ‘aggressive loading’ techniques that I will argue hadn’t been utilized since Vietnam, loaded aircraft far above normal gross weights to ensure they could move as many personnel as we could gather up,” Armstrong said. “They flew directly back into a threat to grab the last of us, fully knowing they were risking their lives to do it.”

Lt. Col. Nicholas Miller was awarded the Air and Space Commendation Medal for meritorious achievement or service, valor or heroism. 

“Lt. Col. Nicholas Miller was the director of operations of the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron during this time and was instrumental in the success of this multifaceted evacuation and support operation as well as flying on ADMAN 11 as the overall HC-130 airborne mission commander,” McBride said.

Other total force units at Al Asad operating HH-60s and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft also earned awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, BSM and Air Medal.

Armstrong said the squadron’s innovative response was tantamount to agile combat employment, the Air Force’s initiative to overcome the vulnerabilities of contingency bases.

“They were ACE before ACE was even cool,” he said. “They were able to act without direct guidance, manage the risk, and make great decisions in the face of danger.”

Armstrong said beyond the crew members recognized, the squadron’s maintenance and support Airmen were also critical to the evacuation.

“Please see the decorations awarded today as not necessarily for the individuals who are wearing them but for the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron as a whole,” he said. “My brothers and sisters, you made the extraordinary look ordinary.”