Gov. Beshear honors Ky. Air Guard as 123rd Airlift Wing earns 20th Outstanding Unit Award, Meritorious Unit Award

  • Published
  • By Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear praised the men and women of the 123rd Airlift Wing for superior performance during a ceremony here Oct. 14 to honor one of the top wings in the U.S. Air Force.

As the primary operational unit of the Kentucky Air National Guard, the wing received its 20th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for excellence in a broad spectrum of missions around the world — a rare achievement. The wing also accepted its first Meritorious Unit Award during the ceremony, for providing key support during the evacuation of civilians from Afghanistan in 2021.

“We're back here once again to celebrate the 123rd Airlift Wing as you continue your streak of being one of the most decorated units in the United States Air Force,” Beshear told an audience of more than 500 Airmen in a hangar at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base. “This comes as no surprise. Over the last nearly four years, I have seen our National Guard at work on the front lines, battling a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, helping respond to deadly tornadoes in the west in 2021, and then helping rescue our people from flooding in the east in 2022.

“I believe our Guard and other first responders, especially in the course of that flooding, showed us the best emergency response to a natural disaster that this country has ever seen. Based on your and other efforts, 1,400 Kentuckians were rescued in a 48-hour period. That’s 1,400 of our friends, our family members, our neighbors that are alive because of your excellence.”

Beshear said the wing’s latest achievements continue a long legacy of service, and are rightfully being recognized with another Outstanding Unit Award. That honor is bestowed by the secretary of the Air Force to units that display exceptionally meritorious service of national or international significance, including combat operations against an armed enemy of the United States. The latest AFOUA is the Louisville-based wing’s 20th overall, and its eighth consecutive such honor. Only a handful of units have equaled or surpassed 20 AFOUAs, and the 123rd leads the way among tactical airlift wings.

“That is an exceptional achievement,” Beshear said. “I mean, one award of that magnitude, and we'd be celebrating. I think earning 20 is pretty much the Hall of Fame — and rightfully so.”

The unit, which flies the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, earned the honor for exceptional performance from Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2021. During that period, the wing deployed 166 Airmen to eight countries and five geographic commands, many in harm’s way, for more than 40,000 days of service in support of Operations Allies Refuge, Allies Welcome, Freedom’s Sentinel, Inherent Resolve, Renewal of Hope and Spartan Shield. The wing’s Airmen were also heavily engaged at home, supporting multiple disaster-recovery and COVID-response operations.

During the award period, the wing flew 4,498 sorties across U.S. Central Command, transporting 8,479 tons of cargo and 12,008 troops in support of multiple combat missions and humanitarian airlift taskings, including high-threat combat airdrops and medical-assistance flights following a devastating port explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. The wing’s pararescue and special reconnaissance personnel also facilitated life-saving medical care following a multiple-casualty event, reducing response time from one hour to seven minutes.

When U.S. military operations came to an end in Afghanistan, the wing deployed 42 Airmen to Wisconsin in less than 24 hours to receive and process 11,000 Afghans being evacuated to the United States. A second group of Kentucky Air Guardsmen were mobilized to provide security throughout the operation. These specific efforts earned the wing its first Meritorious Unit Award, an honor bestowed for exceptionally meritorious conduct in direct support of combat operations on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

Back home, the wing mobilized more than 230 Airmen in support of Kentucky’s COVID-19 response, constructing a 288-bed field hospital at the state fairgrounds; staffing a Louisville hospital and long-term care facilities across the Commonwealth; and providing logistical and administrative support at clinical sites that provided 197,907 vaccinations and 119,064 tests for Kentucky citizens.

Beshear said the wing’s support to healthcare providers came at a crucial time.

“When you all were called to serve, they were at a breaking point. They had been working and working and working. And they were questioning whether they'd make it. And the moment that you walked in, everything changed. That's not from me. Those are the words of nurses and doctors, healthcare administrators across this Commonwealth. You brought in your expertise, your competency, but you also brought a new sense of energy and calm. And for that, there are still thousands of people that are still alive today because of your help.”

For these reasons, Beshear then announced that he is awarding a third honor to the wing — The Kentucky Governor’s Outstanding Unit Citation. The same award also will be presented to the Kentucky Air National Guard’s Headquarters element.

“I’m immensely proud of all of you, and I'm grateful you chose to wear that uniform, to sacrifice time from your families, and to be there when we've needed you the most. We have the best Guard in the entire country because you are willing to step up and do whatever is required for a safe Commonwealth. You represent the very best of Team Kentucky, and the very best of the United States of America.”

Col. Bruce Bancroft, commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, took the stage to thank his troops for their commitment to the mission.

“In the 123rd Airlift Wing, the main thing has been, and always will be, our great Airmen,” he said. “Without them, without their sacrifice, their dedication to duty, their service before self and their love of country, the mission of the United States Air Force to fly, fight and win does not happen. They're the fabric that binds the wing together, and they're the foundation upon which our reputation as an airlift wing has been built. Upon their shoulders, today's accolades were forged. I could not be more proud.”

Kentucky’s adjutant general, Army Maj. Gen. Haldane Lamberton, agreed.

“I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t really matter what unit you’re a member of,” Lamberton said. “If you work with quality folks, it’s going to be a terrific experience. For all of our Airmen, the men and women of the 123rd, you guys make this a quality experience. I thank you for your service to the Commonwealth, and I thank you for your military service to our country. Each one of those entities is better off by virtue of you.”