By Chrissy Cuttita
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - Team Eglin's military flying community, its leaders, family and local supporters gathered to recognize a "hero" added to a selective category of military members who risked life in combat to protect others.
Maj. John Caldwell, of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his rapid airpower response to an enemy attack on American and allied forces during his deployment to Nuristan province, Afghanistan, May 2, 2011.
"The DFC is a unique group of individuals; you are about to enjoy elite company like Col. "Bud" Day [retired] who is here today," Col David W. Hicks, 53rd Wing commander and officiator, said to the F-16 pilot before he pinned on the honors.
The F-16 pilot, then rank of captain, responded to an ambush on a special operations team already taking casualties from effective fire. This timely attack allowed the assault team to momentarily regroup.
Hicks was deployed to the area at that time as well and experienced what it was like to fly three to five hours a day hovering the war zone just in case of emergency.
"At those moments it seemed quiet, like nothing was going on," said the commander as a description of the sortie Air Force pilots perform covering military members on the ground. "But then in 10 to 20 minutes a decision has to be made resulting in life or death."
Caldwell quickly identified mortar flashes from the mountainside, rapidly derived coordinates and directed his wingman to employ a Joint Direct Attack Munition before refueling. According to the award narrative, he remained as the only kinetic asset protecting the assault force.
"I'd like to say I could take the credit, but it took a combined effort of military services to get the team on the ground out of the valley," said Caldwell.
From his F-16 cockpit, the pilot initiated coordination with the Combined Air Operations Center, conveyed the urgent need for medical evacuation and additional kinetic assets. He also contacted the separated assault team's command element, provided real time updates of the dire situation and gained approval to use any ordnance to protect them. Meanwhile, 90 insurgents began a flanking charge on the friendly position.
"Sadly, there were six American and coalition forces I couldn't help that day; they are the true heroes," said Caldwell. "I was at the right place at the right time and I believe anyone in my squadron would do the same thing."
His award citation said the pilot's life was at risk when he employed an immediate, nonstandard, danger close strafe run into the rugged, midnight black valley, breaking the inexorable charge as the enemy continued to fire with rounds impacting mere inches from the trapped allies. Caldwell immediately re-attacked with an expertly placed, danger close JDAM, completely neutralizing the ambush.
All that said, the pilot still would not call himself "hero."
"You don't get to define yourself as a 'hero,' others do," said Hicks. "Specifically, guys on the ground that night are telling the story of the F-16 that saved them and how they wouldn't be standing today, same goes for their families. The fact you did it speaks volumes on who you are as an aviator and what you did for our country."
The DFC narration said, according to the assault force commander, the presence of Caldwell and his immensely accurate awareness of the situation prevented a catastrophic loss of American lives and directly turned the tide of this engagement.
"Caldwell is not only an awesome fighter pilot, he also exemplifies our core value of 'service before self,'" said Lt. Col. Thomas Seymour, commander of the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, where Caldwell has served as weapons flight commander since January. "I think this medal is the result of his skill in the air and his willingness to put himself in harm's way in order to accomplish the mission."
In just a short time stationed here, the commander said the pilot won their group's Flight Commander of the Quarter award and fully embraced his new role as an operational test pilot.
Congress authorized The Distinguished Flying Cross, July 2, 1926, as an award for any military member of the U.S. who exhibited heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial fight against an enemy of the U.S.