There were many memorable nominations received during the review process for the 2007 Helicopter Heroism Awards. Here are two teams that stood out for above and beyond service to the United States.
Honors like Rotor & Wing’s Helicopter Heroism Award and this year’s Above and Beyond the Call Awards recognize individual achievement. That is their purpose, to commend individual performance above even the outstanding standards of those who devote themselves to saving lives in war and peace alike.
Often, the honored performance is the sum of the efforts of individual members of a helicopter crew — the pilot and copilot or tactical flight officer, the hoist operator, and the rescue specialist, flight nurse or paramedic. But the achievement is that of an individual crew.
Yet anyone involved in helicopter operations for any length of time knows that a mission, particularly a successful one, is rarely an individual achievement. Individual aircrew members may work as one at the mission’s culmination to secure that success. But the foundation for that success rests on the shoulders of those back at base who keep the aircraft and equipment on it ready for rescue and the skills of its crewmembers honed.
We were reminded of this in the process of accepting nominations for this year’s Helicopter Heroism Award. There were numerous nominators who urged us to recognize the performance of whole groups as heroes. Perhaps the clearest example of this was Cmdr John Menoni of the U.S. Navy. When he submitted the nomination, Menoni was the commanding officer of the Navy’s Helicopter Sea Combat Sqdn 25 based at Andersen AFB on Guam. (He has since relinquished command to Cmdr Hugh Everly and headed to a new assignment with the Standing Joint Force Headquarters in Norfolk, Va.)
Menoni led 70 officers and 400 enlisted personnel in not only meeting the mission requirements of the squadron, but also flying and maintaining the Navy’s newest helicopter, the MH-60S Knighthawk supplied by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft.
After reading the nomination, R&W contacted Menoni to explain that the Helicopter Heroism Award is intended to honor the performance of an individual crewmember or crew, not an entire squadron. Perhaps, we suggested, he could narrow his nomination to a single crew or a set of crews who flew one mission that represented the achievements of the squadron.
There is a whole set of honors for which the squadron’s aircrews can vie, he explained. Sailors as well can be honored for their performance. But the unit had prevailed in its work through the collective effort of all its sailors, he said. If one crewmember or a single crewmember was going to be considered for the Helicopter Heroism Award, he maintained, then all of the squadron’s enlisted personnel must be considered for it.
"During 2007," the commander wrote in his nomination, the sailors of the squadron "set the highest standard for service through their extraordinary efforts during medical evacuation and search and rescue missions."
In standing 24-hr SAR alert duty for Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, the squadron’s sailors were "always ready to assist in the event of an emergency."
On Guam alone in 2007, he noted, the sailors launched on 84 SAR missions resulting in 12 rescues and 19 medevacs. This included inter-island and shipboard medevacs of local civilians, foreigners and other U.S. sailors, as well as multiple jungle rescues of lost and injured hikers, at-sea rescues of tourists and lost fishermen. It also included an at-sea rescue of four crewmembers who ejected from a Northrop Grumman EA-6B that crashed in the Pacific 30 nm north of Guam.
In addition to that, Menoni noted, more than 100 of the squadron’s sailors made up the core of the 2515th Naval Air Ambulance Detachment that deployed from Guam to Camp Buehring in Kuwait. There, the detachment was responsible for medevac, SAR and public-relations missions in Kuwait, the northern Arabian Gulf and southern Iraq. The detachment conducted medevacs of more than 650 U.S., coalition, Iraqi troops and others. It flew 105 dual-ship missions into Iraq.
All of the unit’s sailors "are deserving of the special recognition afforded" by the Helicopter Heroism Award, Menoni wrote, "as they are all on duty, whether they flew or support the SAR crews from the ground."
The deployment to Kuwait from April 2007 to May 2008 of 200 personnel "placed an enormous strain on Guam SAR crews, as well as crews who deployed on Seventh Fleet ships," he wrote. Despite that strain, the squadron "has performed admirably, meeting all sea combat missions, including SAR and medevac with the standard grace and professionalism characteristic of forward-deployed naval forces.
"I can think of no other unit or individual who is more deserving of this award," Menoni said.
Another notable group of individuals dedicated to helicopter rescue came to our attention through the nomination process.
Seven U.S. Army flight medics assigned to Co C, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Regiment last year received the first Combat Medic Badges awarded to medical evacuation crews. The medics received the badges for their actions during combat operations in northern Iraq while flying in support of Task Force Iron of the 1st Armored Div.
The medics are based out of Fort Riley, Kan. and deployed to Iraq with the Combat Aviation Brigade of the 1st Infantry Div in late 2007.
The Combat Medic Badge "recognizes the unique service and selfless sacrifices of medical personnel while in contact with enemy or under fire," according to the Army.
"This is a big deal when you think about the magnitude of this because it is the first time flight medics have received the Combat Medic Badge. It is an interesting point in history," said Col Jessie O. Farrington, commander of the 1st Infantry Combat Aviation Brigade.
Previously, medical personnel serving in division-level medical companies, ground ambulance and medical clearing companies, Mobile-Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), Combat-Support Hospital and aero-medical evacuation units were not eligible for the badge. According to Army regulations, flight medics could not receive it.
"In the past, the combat medical badge was only awarded to those medics serving with ground units. For one reason or another, flight medics were unable to qualify for the badge," said Rogers.
The battles of today have no distinct lines, he said, as any area can become a combat zone without warning. This type of warfare has dramatically altered the traditional support role of medevac companies, placing their medical personnel into more multiple direct combat situations than any previous American conflict.
"They are willing to go anywhere anytime to do the hard work and it’s just impressive," said Farrington. "When they get the call they don’t know what they are getting into. All they know is that they are going to save lives."
The effort to award the Combat Medic Badge to flight crews gained momentum through the involvement of Army leadership, who played a major role in pushing for the badge.
"Several months ago, I was approached by Lt Col Michael Tetu, 2-1 commander, and we discussed the need to do something to recognize medevac flight crews since they did not qualify for the Combat Medic Badge," said Maj Gen Mark P. Hertling, the Task Force Iron commanding general.
"These medics go into some very tough conditions and probably face conditions 10 times tougher than medics on the ground," said Hertling. "What makes this so special is the fact that these flight crews treat patients in the air and to this day these medics and medics like them have never lost a patient in flight."
Hertling wrote a letter to Lt Gen Michael D. Rochelle, deputy chief of staff of the Army to see if regulations could be changed to allow flight medics to receive the Combat Medic Badge.
"We need to do something to change the regulations," he wrote to Rochelle. "We have to do something to get these flight medics the recognition they deserve."
This led to the change in regulations.
"So these seven people are the first," said Hertling.