ABE, UNITED KINGDOM
RAF MILDENHALL, England – July 4 will be a day of celebration for all airmen, civilians and family members as they head up to RAF Feltwell for an annual Independence Day celebration, which is ironic as the date marks 236 years since America declared its independence from England and engaged in war to secure that independence.
Since that day, America and the United Kingdom have forged an alliance key to worldly security.
Looking back over the past two and a half centuries, it's clear that heroes have defined both the nations' paths to greatness. But, the 4th of July is one thing that, even here in the U.K., is a true testament to what it means to be American.
This Independence Day, it's important to remember that America's security has always rested on the backs of the men and women willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to defend it.
RAF Mildenhall is no stranger to heroes. There are unsung heroes of operations in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan serving in shops and offices all around base. Some of their stories have been documented.
One such airman is Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, the Air Force Cross recipient and former 321st Special Tactics Squadron combat controller.
During one mission, Gutierrez was on patrol searching for a high-value target when Gutierrez and his team were ambushed. They countered the ambush with organic weapons and all the while he called in close-air support from F-15E Strike Eagles and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.
"We then dismounted the convoy to conduct an assessment of the situation after the air strike," said Gutierrez, whose team proceeded to check houses in the compound. Once again, they came under intense enemy fire - this time from three sides of their position.
Gutierrez killed four insurgents with his M4 Carbine and orchestrated CAS runs from A-10 aircraft onto insurgents threatening to overrun their location. He directed more than 70 CAS strikes over the next five hours while countering numerous insurgent attempts to overrun his position.
"I determined the enemy's positions as fast as I could," he said. He unremittingly directed A-10, F-15E and AH-64 Apache helicopters onto targets around him, often with the enemy just meters away.
After the battle was over and the area secured, Gutierrez called in two medical evacuation flights for his wounded and fallen teammates.
Attack and fighter aircraft were vital to Gutierrez’s team’s survival. Air Force pilots are “aviating angels” to friendly ground forces. Their duty is essential, but their mighty afterburners require fuel to burn.
Blue 32 Crew
Without the efforts of the 351st Air Refueling Squadron pilots and boom operators, many Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Allied NATO fighter jet missions would be significantly impaired. Not to mention aircrews put their lives on the line each time they perform an aerial refueling.
Capt. Josh Fry, 351st ARS, Capt. George Clark, 100th Operations Support Squadron, and Staff Sgt. Everett Marshall, 351st ARS, received the Air Force Association sponsored Brig. Gen. Ross G. Hoyt Award for their efforts during Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector.
Before OOD started in Libya, the RAF Mildenhall crew of Blue 32 was only out on a week-long mission escorting fighter aircraft across the Mediterranean and north Atlantic.
According to the crew, March 17, 2011, they began supporting OOD and then OUP with the launch of air operations in Libya.
"We had our coats packed and ready for the cold of New England," said Clark. "Next thing you know we're holed up in Greece buying warm weather gear while conducting day and night combat operations in the Mediterranean."
The air-refueling capabilities combined with the tactical location at Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, made the aircrew and their ground support the critical Air Force personnel in the Mediterranean. From March 17 until April 15, the crew of Blue 32 and their support units took the reins on OOD and OUP and provided senior leadership staff for both the advanced echelon team and the 100th ARW detachment at NSA Souda Bay.
During operations, the crew coordinated an air-to-air refueling with a US F-15E Strike Eagle, allowing the aircraft to recover to its base. They were meticulous in their fuel planning, giving the Strike Eagle sufficient fuel to return to its base, and then recovering to NSA Souda Bay landing safely with the absolute minimum amount of fuel.
It wasn't until they were back at Mildenhall that the crew had a chance to review the numbers and see full scale what had been accomplished. According to the crew, that's when it really set in that they had a first class team. The Souda Bay detachment flew 45 missions and offloaded 275.9 million pounds of fuel to 325 aircraft. It was the prolonged stellar performance of Blue 32 at Souda Bay that earned their nomination for the Hoyt Award.
It's about dominating the skies.
“Tankers keep all air assets airborne longer,” said Capt. Matthew Greenspan, 351st ARS. “This is a vital enabler during emergencies, and in times of war or peace.”
Another RAF Mildenhall combat controller utilized CAS and his Soldiering skills in combat.
Tech. Sgt. Ted Hofknecht, 321st STS, was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with Valor and was honored as the Air Force’s recipient of the 2011 Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs award.
Hofknecht’s job was to control air assets and provide CAS for his combined team of coalition and Afghan National Security Force soldiers. His team set out to secure a village Dec. 7, 2010, and his squad quickly came under contact as insurgents assaulted the coalition forces with small-arms and machine gun fire.
As Hofknecht's team returned fire on the insurgents near them, the officers' team struck an improvised explosive device on the ridge of the mountain. An outnumbering insurgent force then ambushed them.
"The enemy was about 150 meters away and we were in heavy vegetation, which took away some of our tactical advantage when using CAS," said Hofknecht, who was engaged in a fierce firefight while directing CAS to his comrades' location, who were suffering a brutal assault after already suffering casualties in the IED blast.
"We ended up getting a pair of Kiowa helicopters, but one had a broken gun switch and couldn't expend any ordnance," said Hofknecht.
Knowing the team that hit the IED was in bad shape and had casualties needing aeromedical evacuation, Hofknecht and his team hastily maneuvered through an ongoing brutal enemy ambush to assist the casualties. Splitting into two teams, Hofknecht sped off toward the landing zone while the remaining forces fought on to secure the mountain.
"We left with only my Green Beret buddy, myself, the wounded and dead, and had no working crew-serve weapon on board, so pretty much had two M4s to defend ourselves with," said Hofknecht. "At first we had a small Afghan security detail but they soon had to return to the fight which left just the two of us to get our casualties to that landing zone."
All of a sudden, a hail of rounds began hitting the truck. When Hofknecht looked back, he found a coordinated ambush about 25 meters from his position.
The broken Kiowa flew overhead to provide air support for the casualties, saw the ambush happening from above and responded.
"I looked up and saw the Kiowa above us, and the co-pilot was hanging out of the side of the helicopter engaging the enemy with his M4," said Hofknecht. "It was a sight I'll never forget."
As his team crested a ridge top, Hofknecht said he could see sparkles from across the entire valley where hundreds of insurgents were firing at the circling Kiowa.
"It was intense. They would intermittently fire at our CAS, then shift fire to us, then back to the helicopter," said Hofknecht. "It went back and forth like that for a long time, but our CAS never budged. They kept taking a brunt of the incoming fire and helping suppress our ambush."
The five-hour battle ended with coalition and insurgent casualties, but the Taliban suffered far more losses than the combined coalition and ANSF team, said Hofknecht.
"Being a CCT and the mixed missions we embark on really intrigues me," said Hofknecht. "I'm honored by the JINSA Award and bronze stars, but I don't do what I do for medals or awards. My fellow controllers are my family, my brothers. I wouldn't choose any other way to live."
These five airmen are only a handful among hundreds of heroes keeping Europe and America safe every day. Read about each branch’s most-decorated service member in part two of the “Backbone of Independence” series soon.
(2nd Lt. Christopher Mesnard and Master Sgt. Dennis Brewer contributed to this story.)
This work, Backbone of Independence Part 1: A look at Mildenhall heroes, by SMSgt Kevin Wallace, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.