JOINT BASE ELEMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Four members of the Alaska Air National Guard's famed 212th Rescue Squadron were awarded the Bronze Star Medal -- one of the nation's highest individual military honors -- in a ceremony at the squadron's headquarters building here Dec. 7, 2013.
Maj. Matthew Komatsu, a combat rescue office, and two pararescuers, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Barendregt and Tech. Sgt. Kyle T. Minshew, received the award for their actions in response to an insurgent attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, in September 2012. The fourth Guardsman, pararescuer Senior Airman Andrew J. Nichols, was recognized for his rescue of a critically injured U.S. soldier in Afghanistan's Konar Valley in July 2011.
On the evening of Sept. 14, 2012, 15 heavily armed insurgents wearing American military uniforms penetrated the perimeter of Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The heavily armed attackers killed two American Marines and wounded nine others; they also destroyed six of the Marines' Harrier ground-attack jets and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
A pararescuer's normal duty is helicopter-borne combat search and rescue, pulling injured service members out of difficult and sometimes hostile situations. Komatsu, Barendregt and Minshew were resting at Camp Bastion on Sept. 14, 2012 when reports started to come in that the base was under attack. The three headed toward the fighting to treat casualties when they realized the insurgents were inside the wire.
"In my mind it meant that they could potentially be anywhere, not necessarily a obvious line of conflict," Barendregt said. "They were also wearing U.S. uniforms, which complicated things and increased the complexity; it was [going to be] necessary to temper our actions so as not to induce fratricide."
"There is no page in a book that covers this scenario," Barendregt remembered thinking, "so let's figure it out."
Over the next few hours the Guardsmen would find themselves not only treating patients but helping to clear out the base and re-establish the perimeter. Komatsu recounted his experience in an extended piece written for the New York Times' "At War" blog, here
The Bronze Star award was "a reflection on the squadron and all that everyone in our unit does," Barendregt said. "There were a lot of moving pieces that preceded that event -- training, logistics and personnel. I just happened to be one of the lucky guys there that night."
Nichols was part of a helicopter mission to rescue a badly injured soldier on July 19, 2011. The soldier's unit was still taking fire and the terrain was rough, so the helicopter was forced to land 100 meters -- and six steep terraces -- above the soldier's location. Airman Nichols and his teammate began taking fire as soon as they exited the helicopter. After initially taking cover, the two sprinted the 100 meters under fire.
"The medical assessment was quick, maybe five to ten seconds," Nichols said. "He needed the surgical unit but it was immediately obvious that we could move fast to get out of the situation."
Nichols then hoisted the large soldier into a fireman's carry and brought him back the 100 meters, uphill and under fire, to safety.
"I've trained hundreds of times for firefights and, in the moment, it seemed like training," he said. "Our whole pipeline -- upgrade and predeployment training -- is tailored to situations just like that. For years before I was in Afghanistan, I was training for this exact mission: treating patients while under enemy fire, performing call for fires and returning fire as the situation dictates."
"I'm proud to be part of this team," Nichols said of his fellow squadron members. "Everyone here is exceptional at the job, I'm proud to be a part of that."