Eight Kentucky Air Guardsmen honored for heroism, meritorious service in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Maj. Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Eight Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard were honored with prestigious medals here Sunday for their heroism and meritorious service in Afghanistan, where they engaged enemy forces in lethal combat and helped build a sustainable farming economy.

The adjutant general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, presented the medals during a ceremony held before a standing room-only audience of more than 400 coworkers, friends and family at the 123rd Airlift Wing. The decorations, all earned for recent deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

Distinguished Flying Crosses are awarded to members of the U.S. military who distinguish themselves in combat by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. Bronze Star Medals are earned for heroic or meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against an armed enemy, while Air Force Combat Action Medals are awarded for active participation in combat, having been under direct and hostile fire or physically engaging hostile forces with direct and lethal fire.

"One of the best parts of my job is recognizing the unbelievable accomplishments of our Kentucky National Guard Servicemen and women," Tonini told the audience. "This ceremony certainly celebrates the accomplishments of these award recipients, but it also is a reflection of what I think is the best damn airlift wing in the United States Air Force.

"It's hard to stop and reflect on our achievements when we've been moving so fast, so often over the last 12 years. Well, today we have that chance to pause, to reflect and to celebrate the accomplishments of these eight Airmen."

Capt. Nathan Tingle, a combat rescue officer assigned to the wing's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight over Afghanistan on May 26, 2011.

"On that date, (Tingle) was the lead combat rescue officer for a harrowing rescue mission into Shorbak District, Kandahar Province, where a squad of United States Army Pathfinders had been ambushed by multiple improvised explosive devices," according to the award citation.

"Considering many factors during the challenging flight through reduced visibility into mountainous terrain, he aided in formulating a plan to perform multiple (personnel extractions) over a still-active minefield where a critically wounded Soldier, two isolated Soldiers and 10 killed in action were stranded," the citation said.

Tingle provided armed over-watch and searched for enemy triggermen as he hoisted the first patient into the helicopter. While he worked to recover the team leader and a second patient, the helicopter experienced a sudden loss of power and came within two feet of ground impact. As the formation sped back to Kandahar Airfield, Tingle assisted in providing life-saving patient care.

"His split-second decision making and calm demeanor ensured the safety of his pararescue team and ultimately saved the lives of two United States Soldiers," the citation said.

The next two Airmen to be honored are combat controllers assigned to the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron. Combat controllers are FAA-certified air traffic controllers who deploy undetected into hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, humanitarian assistance and special reconnaissance.

The first of the two combat controllers, Tech. Sgt. Jeff Kinlaw, earned a Bronze Star Medal with Valor for heroism while engaged in ground operations against the enemy near Kamdesh Village, Nuristan Province, from April 11 to 16, 2012. On April 12, while serving as the primary Joint Terminal Attack Controller for a combined United States Special Forces team and an Afghanistan Commando unit, Kinlaw battled Taliban fighters for 14 hours.

"On this day, a highly motivated enemy initiated a coordinated assault with small-arms, medium machine-gun and sniper fire," the citation said.

Kinlaw voluntarily and continuously placed himself in plain sight of the enemy to protect the lives of his teammates. When the Taliban advance initiated, he surrendered his protected position and bounded through open terrain to support a pinned-down element in dire need of help.

"During the heaviest volleys of enemy fire, Sergeant Kinlaw low-crawled to unprotected areas in order to ensure the supporting aircraft could successfully identify and engage well-hidden insurgent fighting positions," the citation said. "Using his hand-held laser marker, he coordinated multiple air-to-ground attacks on strongholds within 100 meters of his position.

"Later during the enemy advance, while continuing to control air strikes, he again surrendered cover and went into the direct line of enemy fire to locate a suitable helicopter landing zone to evacuate the wounded in action. Sergeant Kinlaw remained exposed until the extraction was complete."

During the 14-hour attack, Kinlaw successfully engaged seven enemy fighting positions and three Taliban-dominated structures, killed 18 insurgents and weakened the adversary's advance.

The second combat controller to be honored, Tech. Sgt. Robert Bonello, earned a Bronze Star Medal with Valor for heroism while engaged in ground operations against the enemy in Faryab Province on April 14, 2012.

On that date, Bonello served as the primary Joint Terminal Attack Controller assigned to an Army Special Forces Team. While conducting a time-sensitive air assault mission, his team was directly engaged by enemy forces. Bonello "skillfully prosecuted targets with the air assets overhead" and then proceeded to execute another time-sensitive mission when his team was pinned down by a barrage of heavy machine gun fire, the citation said.

"After an interpreter and an Afghan Commando were wounded, Sergeant Bonello broke cover, pulled the critically wounded interpreter to cover, and relayed a request for close-air support and a medical evacuation," according to the citation. "Although Sergeant Bonello was under direct fire for over three hours, he flawlessly directed a coordinated attack consisting of four 500-pound bombs, two Hellfire missiles, and multiple strafes from fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. His courage and technical expertise saved the lives of his teammates and resulted in 16 confirmed enemy killed in action."

Bonello also was awarded a second Bronze Star Medal on Sunday, for meritorious achievement while engaged in ground combat against the enemy from Nov. 16, 2011 to May 1, 2012. During this time, Bonello served as the primary Joint Terminal Attack Controller attached to an Army Special Forces Team.

While conducting deliberate clearing operations in remote areas across northern Afghanistan, he controlled 160 rotary- and fixed-wing assets and conducted 40 combat missions, including 12 helicopter assaults, according to the citation.

"Sergeant Bonello also controlled 30 helicopter landing zone sorties and four medical evacuations resulting in the life-saving treatment of three wounded Afghan Commandos and a local national interpreter," the citation said. "On five different occasions, Sergeant Bonello was decisively engaged by enemy forces. During each engagement, he calmly and methodically coordinated intimidating displays of airpower to decimate the enemy with limited collateral damage and no civilian casualties. His courage and technical expertise saved the lives of his teammates on multiple occasions and resulted in 47 confirmed enemy killed in action."

Of the five remaining honorees on Sunday, four hail from a variety of career fields but were all deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Kentucky National Guard's Agribusiness Development Team V, a multidisciplinary group whose mission was to foster a sustainable agriculture-based economy.

Lt. Col. Dallas Kratzer II earned a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement as the executive officer and Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team liaison officer, Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar Province, from Nov. 25, 2012 to Oct.1, 2013.

"Lt. Col. Kratzer excelled at all levels as one of the key senior leaders for this 42-person agriculture development team, and was the driving force behind the tremendous successes of this team in expanding the capabilities and influence of Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan officials in six key-terrain districts," the citation said.

"His team conducted over 300 combat missions in areas previously deemed too kinetic for agribusiness operations, and was engaged numerous times with harassing small-arms fire while on combat patrols throughout the province. Falling back on their training, they responded appropriately and flawlessly each time, without any incidents or rules-of-engagement violations. Furthermore, under his direction, (Agribusiness Development Team V) implemented a high school-level after-school agriculture program in three districts, reaching over 2,500 students. Through a coordinated effort with Kandahar University, district education administrators and educators were trained and equipped with resources and knowledge to raise a new generation of Afghan youth prepared to meet the agriculture challenges."

Kratzer also forged an important relationship with the provincial veterinarian, launching a Para-Veterinary Village Outreach Program -- the first of its kind in Kandahar. This program educated and equipped local para-veterinarians and Afghan National Army Special Forces medics with a sustainable animal healthcare program that impacted thousands of animals, meeting the needs of an underserved sector of the Afghan population and moving them to a higher level of independence in livestock care.

Master Sgt. James Oliver earned a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement as the Maiwand District Team Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge and Regional Command South Stability Division liaison officer, Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar Province, from Dec. 1 2012 to Oct. 1, 2013.

Oliver excelled while assigned as liaison officer during the first four months of his tour, establishing linkages and developing key relationships directly impacting Agribusiness Development Team V's ability to plan and execute missions at the highest levels, his citation said.

"Upon completion of his (liaison officer) duties, Master Sgt. Oliver became the Maiwand District NCOIC, where he quickly integrated into his new assignment and played a major role in the success of the team," according to the citation. "He excelled at educating and mentoring Maiwand District government officials, to include the district governor and the district director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. His mentorship and stalwart dedication to duty energized previously non-functioning government officials, spurring them on to reach a higher level of sufficiency, significantly improving their capabilities to effectively manage agribusiness programs in their district."

During the deployment, Oliver coordinated several village-level operations, including agribusiness training events and shuras that "supported counterinsurgency efforts by fostering an environment conducive to improved private-sector production and marketing," the citation said.

"He employed his skills to mentor, teach and advise local maliks and village elders on sustainable irrigation and canal-restoration projects, creating a workable model that will carry forward long after Coalition Forces depart the theater of operations," according to the citation.

Oliver also conducted more than 40 combat missions throughout the province, including operations into villages previously deemed too kinetic to conduct agribusiness missions.

Master Sgt. Zakiya Taylor earned a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement as the Panjwai District Team Noncommissioned Officer in Charge, Kandahar Province, from Dec. 1, 2012 to Oct. 1, 2013.

Taylor educated and mentored Panjwai District government officials, including the district governor, district Development Assembly chairman and the district director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, leading to the establishment of educational programs in a previously unused extension center, according to the citation.

The facility soon developed into a demonstration farm and para-veterinary clinic, "creating a sustainable model of government efficiency and an invaluable resource for the district," the citation said.

"Master Sgt. Taylor leveraged her experience as a leader and food preservation specialist to engage Panjwai District inhabitants on multiple levels," the citation continued. "Leading and coordinating over 83 agribusiness training events and shuras in Panjwai, she fostered an environment of cooperation and community between the local villages, Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan officials and (the International Security Assistance Force), extending counterinsurgency efforts by supporting private sector agribusinesses."

Taylor also conducted more than 70 combat missions, including over 45 village-level operations to the Horn of Panjwai -- an area previously deemed too kinetic to conduct agribusiness operations.

Tech. Sgt. Nathan Steele earned a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement as the Zharay District Team Noncommissioned Officer in Charge and civil engineering project manager, Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar Province, from Dec. 1, 2012 to Aug. 28, 2013.

Steele was directly responsible for mentoring the district director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock and other government officials in Zharay District, including the district governor and director of education's representative.

"Leveraging his experience in project management and finance, he was instrumental in planning and renovating the $3 million Zharay District Education Center and Demonstration Farm, restoring it to viability with crop-rotation schedules, fruit and vegetable plots and functioning agricultural equipment," the citation said.

"In coordination with U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Agriculture, he successfully facilitated multiple district-wide agricultural shuras, bringing hundreds of local farmers together at the ZDEC Farm for the first time."

Steele, working hand-in-hand with the Zharay director of education's representative, developed and launched the district's first after-school youth agricultural program, successfully spearheading the negotiations and program agreements between Kentucky Agribusiness Development Team V and three Kandahar University instructors. He also sponsored a three-day seminar for more than 30 Zharay District middle and high school teachers, training them on the curriculum and how to implement the program with their students.

"Tech. Sgt. Steele designed the program using a three-pillar educational approach of animal husbandry, water science and plant/crop science," the citation said. "The district governor lauded this program as being the single most important educational effort completed in his district, creating a way-ahead for expanding agricultural education and increasing literacy to over 5,000 students."

Steele conducted more than 46 combat patrol missions in the Zharay District and served as a member of the Security Forces team, completing 32 combat patrols as a driver, gunner or dismounted team member.

During one of his tours as a security forces "Guardian Angel," a civilian protest resulted in gunfire that injured numerous Afghan civilians. Without hesitation, Steele volunteered to help treat several local nationals, and his efforts were credited with saving the life of a man with a severe gunshot wound to the leg.

Sunday's final award recipient is an explosive ordnance disposal technician from the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron. Tech. Sgt. Christopher Terrell earned the Air Force Combat Action Medal for active participation in combat in connection with military operations on June 14, 2011.

On that date, Terrell's team was responding to an improvised explosive device called in by Afghan forces in Ghazni Province when the last vehicle in his convoy hit an IED. Immediately after the detonation, enemy forces engaged both the disabled vehicle and Terrell's vehicle.

Being the "gunner" for his team, Terrell returned fire, suppressing the enemy while other vehicles maneuvered into position to support the disabled vehicle and assist in defense. While taking fire himself, Terrell pushed the enemy back and wounded at least one of the attackers before they disengaged and fled the area.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Kentucky National Guard has deployed more than 16,000 Soldiers and Airmen in support of military operations around the world.