It's the stuff of Hollywood blockbuster scripts – brave men sacrificing personal safety to perform acts of heroism behind enemy lines. In this case, however, the story is real. And it's not Academy Awards going to the courageous cast, it's the Bronze Star with V device for valor, the nation's fourth highest ranking military award for heroism, bestowed last Friday to members of the East End's own 106th Rescue Wing 103rd Rescue Squadron.
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In a ceremony at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton last Friday, the Combat Rescue Officer and five Pararescuemen, known collectively as Guardian Angels, were honored for courage under fire on a rescue mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Almost a year ago to the day, the Guardian Angels, comprised of Captain Ronnie Maloney, 43, of Middle Island; Senior Master Sergeant Erik Blom, 37, of Hampton Bays; Technical Sergeant Anthony Yusup, 31, of Bloomsburg, PA; Staff Sergeant James Dougherty, 29, of Rocky Point; Staff Sergeant Matthew Zimmer, 28, of Westhampton; and Staff Sergeant Christopher Petersen, 28, of Commack, then a senior Airman, were assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron Detachment of the 651st Air Expeditionary Group, a part of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing, at Kandahar Air Field.
On December 10, 2012, the Guardian Angels were tasked with a high-risk casualty evacuation of four soldiers critically wounded during an ambush. The team was assigned to man two HH-60 Pavehawk rescue helicopters, call signs Pedro 61 and Pedro 62, being flown by members of the 55th Rescue Squadron, an Active Air Force unit. A friendly platoon of about 25 soldiers had been ambushed and four soldiers were critically injured.
The friendly unit was still under fire as the two helicopters approached the scene. Yusup, Dougherty and Petersen, in Pedro 2, were first on the ground, their chopper under enemy machinegun fire. They ran through it to reach the American and Afghan infantrymen, who were sheltering behind a mud wall. Two rocket-propelled grenades hit the ground just five meters away from the Air Guardsmen as they conducted triage on the wounded soldiers. When the grenades hit nearby Sgt. Dougherty and Airman Petersen shielded the wounded with their own bodies. Leader of the three-man element, Sgt. Yusup stayed in the open, exposed to enemy fire, directing the casualty collection.
Meanwhile, Pedro 61, carrying Combat Rescue Officer Maloney, and two East Enders, Blom, the team noncommissioned officer in charge, and Zimmer, landed. Approaching the site, the chopper immediately came under direct enemy small arms fire and machine gun fire and narrowly missed a rocket-propelled grenade fired at it.
The trio ran across an open field under enemy fire to get to the wounded. According to his citation, Sgt. Zimmer ran across an open field to meet the rest of his team when another rocket-propelled grenade detonated less than 10 meters away. Undeterred and without hesitation, he set out to locate and treat the wounded despite the ongoing firefight. While crawling, he treated three patients that had sustained gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well as a gravely injured soldier with three amputated limbs.
A full time member of the 106th Rescue Wing, Sergeant Zimmer later noticed that a litter team carrying one of the casualties to the awaiting helicopter was having difficulty moving through the rough terrain to get to the landing zone. He took off across the open field under enemy fire to assist the team, and then crossed back under enemy fire again, returning to the wounded.
"His aggressive actions, disregard for his own personal safety and his ability to calmly treat the wounded in the face of continuous enemy fire were instrumental in the evacuation of four coalition soldiers from the battlefield," the official citation states.
Sgt. Blom, a Suffolk County Police officer and traditional Guard Airman serving part time, maintained control of the chaotic situation by establishing a casualty collection point from which he could best direct the team. He, too, traversed an open area to bring vital information to his commander. With the enemy momentarily suppressed by overhead air assets, he disseminated the extraction plan for the casualties and ensured the team was prepared to move to the helicopter.
According to his citation, Sergeant Blom expertly noticed a gap in the security perimeter and maneuvered to a firing position behind a mud berm. From this position, he redistributed his ammunition amongst the depleted forces and directed suppressive fire at the enemy giving cover to teammates moving wounded to the awaiting helicopter. "Sergeant Blom's tenacious leadership resulted in the immediate life sustaining treatment and successful extraction of four casualties from the battlefield," his citation states.
"I'm extremely proud of these men," said Lt. Col. Shawn Fitzgerald, the commander of the 103rd Rescue Squadron on Friday. "Their actions validate the hard work they come in and do day-in and day-out."
"Being a Combat Rescue Officer and PJ (pararescue jumper) is unique. We ask an incredible amount of both our full-time and traditional Guardsmen. This is a validation of everything they work so hard to achieve," he added.
"Today, we recognize the tremendous bravery of six New York Air National Guardsmen who put their lives on the line to protect the safety of others," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Friday. "Our Guard members have served admirably both in wars abroad and during emergencies at home. The courage, clear thinking, and selfless dedication of these six Airmen is a testament to the incredible service of New York's Air National Guard. On behalf of all New Yorkers, I offer my congratulations to these brave men for this well-deserved honor."
In addition to earning the Bronze Star for Valor, their exploit was also honored as "The Rescue Mission of the Year" for 2012 by the Jolly Green Association, the professional association of serving and retired members of Air Force Rescue.