By Airman 1st Class Chloe Ochs, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 29, 2018
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Five members of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron were awarded Bronze Star Medals during a ceremony at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base here Nov. 17 for outstanding selflessness and bravery in the defense of the United States.
The Bronze Star Medal, bestowed for heroism or meritorious service in a combat zone, was awarded to Master Sgt. Blair A. Baerny, Master Sgt. Benjamen K. Pelster, Tech. Sgt. Joshua C. Busch, Staff Sgt. Daniel P. Keller and Staff Sgt. Robert W. Willging.
Col. David J. Mounkes, commander of Kentucky’s 123rd Airlift Wing, presented the awards before a crowd of more than 100 coworkers, friends and family members.
“I am extremely honored and humbled to be able to be a part of these ceremonies for what was accomplished.” Mounkes told the audience. “Since 9/11, every Guard unit has struggled with becoming more operational, but with an STS unit in this wing, they lead the way. They are — by nature, by their mission — always operational.”
Baerny distinguished himself for meritorious service as a pararescue team leader during Operation Freedom’s Sentinel from Aug. 22 through Nov. 15, 2015. His outstanding performance, expertise and dedication to duty greatly contributed to the success of the unit’s mission, according to the citation. Baerny’s leadership ensured effective combat search and rescue coverage, mitigating risk and degrading the enemy’s capabilities, the citation said.
Pelster, a combat control craftsman, distinguished himself by meritorious achievement as the non-commissioned officer in charge of an assault zone reconnaissance team from June 26 through Nov. 1, 2014. Pelster was instrumental in the execution of nine missions across five countries, which led to the establishment and expansion of critical air infrastructure in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, according to the citation. He supervised a 53-man team during a night infiltration and assessment of a strategic airfield in Southern Iraq. In addition to coordinating with Marine Corps force reconnaissance operators, Pelster also supervised a 12-man team that helped enable partner nation forces to maintain momentum and resupply forces in their fight against Al Qaeda, the citation said.
Busch, a combat control craftsman, served as key senior tactical advisor for 17 ground combat operations that helped prevent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria insurgents from overrunning dozens of critical checkpoints during Operation Freedom’s Sentinel from Feb. 20 through May 14, 2018. He successfully led and coordinated 42 air and ground engagements while under direct enemy fire, according to the citation. On one occasion, intense enemy fighting placed him inside the lethal radius of an improvised explosive device pressure plate. His decisive actions and composure under fire enabled him to immediately assess two patients and provide tactical combat care and medical evacuation to his explosive ordnance disposal teammate, despite a double amputation and extreme hemorrhaging, the citation said.
Keller, a combat control craftsman, distinguished himself in Eastern Afghanistan from April 23 through Oct. 1, 2017. Keller served at a combat outpost where he conducted operations and engaged the Islamic State of Iraq in 51 intense fire fights, according to the citation. Completely outnumbered on numerous occasions, Keller stopped several enemy assaults alongside his special forces brethren.
“His actions were imperative to his teams’ safe and successful execution of hold and clearance operations and the fight against a determined enemy” threatening the people of Afghanistan, the citation said.
Willging, a combat control craftsman, displayed heroism while engaged with an opposing armed force on July 23, 2017. On this date, he served as a joint terminal attack controller assigned to a special forces team, according to the citation. While on patrol against 350 fighters, Willging displayed disregard for his own personal safety by exposing himself to hostile fire in order to control close air support in defense of pinned-down assault elements. He safely deconflicted 15 aircraft while coordinating the medical evacuation of two personnel killed in action and five wounded in action. His personal courage and confidence contributed to his team’s overall success and survival, the citation said.
Maj. Aaron J. Zamora, commander of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, praised the recipients and distinguished the 123rd STS from other special tactics units.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been at six special operations units spread through (Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Combat Command) and the Guard,” Zamora said. “All were great, all had amazing work ethic, were full of heroes, warriors and amazing leaders. Since being here, I’ve noticed that there’s something that sets us apart from all those other units. At the 123rd STS, there’s a culture of excellence, and it seems that the work ethic is contagious throughout our organization.”