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Heroes recognized for lives saved

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jessica Green
  • 129th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
Eleven California Air National Guardsmen from the 129th Rescue Wing (RQW) were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at Moffett Federal Airfield on Nov. 5 for multiple combat search and rescue missions conducted in Afghanistan during 2009 and 2010.

The Distinguished Flying Cross is one of the Air Force's highest honors, awarded to servicemembers who distinguish themselves in support of operations by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial mission. The cross signifies an Airman's unselfish dedication on duty and recognizes their gallant actions.

"Participating in a ceremony recognizing a single Airman with a Distinguished Flying Cross or an Air Medal would be an incredible opportunity. To witness 14 Airmen from the same unit receiving these awards at the same time is nothing short of extraordinary," said Brig. Gen. Matthew Beevers, California Military Department assistant adjutant general. "Your efforts and your service speak to the very spirit of what it means to be an American."

Maj. Thomas Keegan, an HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter pilot, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Bastion Forward Operating Base on June 29, 2009.

On that date, Keegan led a two-ship formation, under the call sign Pedro 35, on an urgent medical evacuation into the volatile Helmand province. He displayed valor in the face of danger when he flew his aircraft through multiple lines of fire, placing Pedro 35 directly between the origin of fire and the defenseless patient on the ground. His courageous decision-making and piloting expertise allowed his flight to successfully extract the wounded soldier.

The Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor was also awarded to Pave Hawk pilots Lt. Col. George Dona and Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar, flight engineer Senior Master Sgt. Steven Burt and aerial gunner Tech. Sgt. Tiejie Jones for heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Kandahar Airfield on July 29, 2009.

Dona and Hegar, leading a two-ship formation in Pedro 15 and Pedro 16, used Burt's direction to execute a tactical landing alongside an attacked convoy in an effort to provide medical evacuation for three soldiers.

Falling under heavy enemy fire, Pedro 15 dropped off a pararescue team and retreated from the hot landing zone. Jones established critical communication with higher command and relayed the details of their dire situation.

The Pedro 15 crew then voluntarily risked their lives to return and rescue their patients and pararescuemen from the ambush. Once on the ground, Pedro 15 started taking heavy machine gun fire, damaging multiple systems. The crew waited for the patients to be loaded before evacuating with the battered aircraft to safety.

Burt assessed the helicopter and urged a safe landing as soon as possible. Pedro 15 landed less than two miles away, where Burt and the pararescuemen transferred the patients o Pedro 16 which flew them to safety.

Dona, Hegar and Jones were extracted on the skids of a U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopter. The actions of the crew on Pedro 15 saved the lives of the three patients and ensured the survival of the crew.

"Major Dona had a lot of patience and confidence in his team to stay on the ground through all the chaos. His amazing pilotage skills saved all our lives," Hegar said. Looking back at the incident, Hegar, who was awarded a Purple Heart last year for her participation in this rescue, is thankful for her crew and their bravery, "I'm extremely proud of my crew's heroism."

Less than a month later, on Aug. 9, 2009, anther brave crew flying under the Pedro call sign distinguished themselves by meritorious achievement and heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Kandahar Airfield.

Lt. Col. Rhys Hunt flew the lead aircraft, Pedro 15, in a joint-force formation of Pave Hawks and U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk's, Kiowas, A-10 Thunderbolt's and an unmanned aerial vehicle to rescue five critically wounded American soldiers from an ongoing firefight.

After establishing communications with the ground controller, the crew quickly realized the potential for enemy activity and vigilantly landed in the hot zone. Lt. Andrew Hedin, a Pave Hawk flight engineer, assisted loading four of the wounded before the aircraft retreated.

While taking off, Pedro 15 came under an intense barrage of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire, one exploding close enough to the aircraft that both Hedin and Hunt felt the concussion from the blast.

Reacting instinctively, Hedin and Chief Master Sgt. Jason Red, a Pave Hawk aerial gunner and the new 129th RQW command chief, engaged in retaliation fire, placing themselves between their wingman and the advancing enemy threat. The crew's exceptional valor and superb airmanship helped save the lives of 16 people and two aircraft.

"I've never heard an RPG detonated [and fired at us] before," Hedin said. "Even though we risked our lives [that day], we saved people -- and that's the important thing."

The actions of these Airmen, all assigned to the 129th Rescue Squadron (RQS), directly contributed to the 129th's widespread reputation of bravery and dependability, giving much needed piece of mind to the soldiers conducting ground combat operations.

Master Sgt. Luigge Romanillo, a pararescueman assigned to the 131st Rescue Squadron, distinguished himself by heroism while participating in aerial mission near Bagram Airfield on May 4, 2010.

On that date, Romanillo flew a high-risk medical evacuation mission to extract wounded coalition forces engaged by more than 100 insurgents in an ambush site. En route, Romanillo expertly prepared his team to evacuate the patients in minimal time under enemy fire. His actions led to the successful evacuation of two wounded coalition Soldiers and repatriation of two killed in action.

Senior Master Sgt. Larry Hiyakumoto and Staff Sgt. Joshua Webster, pararescuemen assigned to the 131st RQS, distinguished themselves by heroism while participating in an aerial mission near Bagram Airfield on June 27, 2010.

The pararescuemen participated in eight non-stop casualty evacuation missions in support of coalition operations. For nearly seven hours Webster aided Hiyakumoto by prioritizing patients and treating wounded personnel, many of whom would not have survived without immediate medical treatment.

Ultimately, Hiyakumoto and Webster's heroic actions helped save 13 U.S. Soldiers and coalition forces under extreme conditions and enemy fire.

Maj. Mathew Wenthe and Capt. Hung Nguyen, both HH-60G pilots and Tech. Sgt. Joseph Kenney, an HH-60G flight engineer were also honored Saturday with Air Medals. The Air Medal was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 to be awarded to U.S. military and civilian personnel for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial missions. The medal signifies an Airman's commitment to duty and professionalism.

"As we meet in Washington, sometimes in fractious manner, it's important for us to remember the courage, bravery and generosity of people who volunteer to serve in our Armed Services," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California's 16th Congressional District.

"You're going to get your recognition now. ...The country is appreciative of what you have done, proud of the bravery you have shown and grateful to you and to your families," she said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo has shown a vested interest and continued encouragement to the 129th RQW throughout her time in office in California's 14th Congressional District. Although unable to attend Saturday's ceremony, she passed along her congratulations to the medal recipients by sending each Airman a congratulatory letter and a certificate of special congressional recognition.

Eshoo's letter reads, "This award speaks volumes about you and your embodiment of the Air Force core values of integrity, service and excellence, and we salute you for it."

Providing 24-hour alert in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, performing up to eight rescue missions each day in active combat zones, 129th RQW Airmen were credited with saving 345 injured people, including joint forces, coalition personnel and Afghan nationals, from 2009 to 2010.

"Today's ceremony builds on the incredible reputation of the 129th Rescue Wing, a reputation forged through 10 years of persistent conflict," Beevers said. "The 129th has come to be recognized as one of the most highly decorated units to have fought in Operation Enduring Freedom."

Members of the 129th Rescue Wing have served in every major conflict since World War II and have saved a total of 947 lives. For their actions in the line of duty, several members have been recipients of some of the highest military decorations: nearly 600 combat medals, including 45 Combat Action Medals 36 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 26 Air Medals, four Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.