White House official honors ANG unit with rare award

  • Published
  • By Maj. Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
One of President Barack Obama's top advisors praised the Kentucky Air National Guard for superior achievement March 18, calling the organization "second to none" during a ceremony honoring the 123rd Airlift Wing for winning a nearly unprecedented 15th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

Also recognized were Kentucky Air National Guard Headquarters, which accepted its 9th Air Force Organizational Excellence Award; and the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, which received an Air Force Meritorious Unit Award from Air Force Special Operations Command.

"It is indeed a pleasure for me to be here and recognize the great accomplishments of the more than 1,200 Citizen-Airmen in the Kentucky Air National Guard," said Richard Reed, special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for resilience policy. "The missions you perform are critically important to ensuring our nation's security, defense and disaster response, both at home and abroad."

The 123rd Airlift Wing's 15th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award is especially noteworthy, Reed told an audience of more than 1,000 Airmen who packed a hangar at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base. Research indicates that only three other units have ever earned 15 AFOUAs.

"This level of achievement is a testament to the 123rd Airlift Wing's rich legacy of service and excellence, dating back to your founding in 1947," he said. "With six Distinguished Flying Unit Plaques, three Metcalf Trophies, three 15th Air Force Solano Trophies and three Spaatz Trophies, the 123rd Airlift Wing is among the most -- if not the most -- decorated units in the United States Air Force.

"That heritage of excellence continues today. Your recent accomplishments show a dedication to mission performance that is really unsurpassed. Whether supporting the war overseas or defense of the homeland in the United States, you are always there."

During the award period, which ran from October 2009 to September 2011, the wing deployed 741 personnel to 32 locations in 21 countries. Many were in direct combat or combat-support missions, including 150 Airmen who deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with five of the unit's C-130 aircraft to fly airlift missions in support of Operation Enduing Freedom. Those Airmen logged an unprecedented 100 percent mission-capable rate while flying 3,600 sorties that transported 41,000 passengers and moved 13,500 tons of cargo, including 3.5 million pounds of airdropped materiel. They also broke multiple monthly records for overall combat airdrops and amount of cargo moved in theater.

Members of the 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron deployed to Bagram as well, completing more than $300 million in base construction projects in six months, including a fully functional Air Mobility Command passenger terminal and the first permanent C-130 maintenance hangar.

In a novel concept, the wing deployed 17 Airmen to Afghanistan for Agribusiness Development Teams 1 and 2, fostering the creation of a sustainable agriculture economy and boosting income for 1,400 Afghan raisin vineyards by 50 percent in less than 6 months. One of the wing's officers was later selected as commander of ADT 3 -- the first time an Air Guardsman has led an agribusiness development team. That group of 60 Army and Air National Guardsmen coordinated Afghanistan's first-ever commercial mulberry harvest in the Panshir Valley, producing 75 metric tons of mulberries and netting about $45,000 for local farmers.

Over in Kyrgyzstan, the wing deployed 28 Security Forces to Manas Air Base, protecting 4,000 personnel and over $2 billion in assets during the massive build-up of forces needed to support a troop surge in U.S. Central Command.

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the wing's 123rd Contingency Response Group was hand-picked to open an airlift hub in the Dominican Republic, enabling the evacuation of 210 personnel and delivering 725 short tons of life-saving aid. The CRG Commander also coordinated the airflow into Haiti and later deployed to run air operations for tsunami and earthquake relief in Japan.

"I've had the opportunity to watch elements of this unit in action in the Dominican Republic, and I've certainly spent a fair amount of time dealing with the aftermath of events in Japan," said Reed, who leads the development of disaster-response policy at the White House. "I can tell you: At the end of the day, your work speaks for itself. In most cases, that's either a really good thing or a really bad thing. In your case, it's a damn good thing."

Reed noted that the 123rd Airlift Wing has a long history of disaster response and humanitarian relief, including missions in response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav.

"Your militia heritage really gives you a special passion to support the citizens of the United States," he said. "And you are true innovators in homeland security and defense, as exemplified by The 123rd Airlift Wing Initial Response Hub, which stands alone in the capability it will provide during response to a major disaster."

Now operational, the Initial Response Hub is a small group of Kentucky Air Guardsmen with the training, equipment and C-130 aircraft to deploy within hours to the site of a natural disaster or enemy attack, set up command and control of a non-functioning airfield, provide first-feed situational awareness to the national command authority and begin accepting incoming aircraft for humanitarian assistance or medical evacuation. No other unit in the U.S. military has all of these capabilities housed in one unit, with the C-130 aircraft to permit immediate response.

"In short, you bring the capability our nation will need during a crisis, and you will be there within a few hours of the call," Reed said. "It's a capability that will serve this nation well, and it's a capability we need to provide for the safety and welfare of Americans here, as well as citizens across the globe."

Reed said the Initial Response Hub's first-feed situational-awareness capability is especially valuable, given that reliable information is often hard to come by in the early hours following a natural disaster.

"I spend a lot of time deconflicting information from a variety of sources to try to prepare senior leadership -- in particular the president -- for understanding what's going on, on the ground," he said. "That's not an easy task to do. So this capability will really help me paint the picture for the boss in such a way that he can make decisions from a very, very well-informed position."

Reed noted that the Initial Response Hub is more than just an idea on paper. It was validated in 2010 when the wing earned an "Excellent" rating during the Air Mobility Command's first-ever homeland-defense Operational Readiness Inspection. It also was mobilized during the last three National Level Exercises -- large-scale disaster-response scenarios involving a full spectrum of government agencies.

Last year, for example, the wing stood up an Initial Response Hub for medical evacuation in Missouri, directing 17 aircraft, 80 tons of cargo and 104 passengers while interoperating with U.S. Transportation Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and numerous other federal, state and local civilian organizations.

"The president's guidance is pretty simple: We need to have an aggressive, well-coordinated and comprehensive response," Reed said. "Your understanding of your mission in support of domestic operations is key. (Your wing commander) tells me the 123rd Airlift Wing is not the kind of unit that waits to be called when need arises. You pick up the phone and say, 'You need us, and we're on the way.' I call that leaning forward, and I appreciate that. When America needs help, you've constantly demonstrated that you are ready and you will be there."

The day's other two awards recognized exceptional achievements by the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron and Headquarters, Kentucky Air National Guard.

The special tactics squadron earned a Meritorious Unit Award as part of the 720th Special Operations Group during an evaluation period that ran from October 2009 to September 2011. During that time, the Kentucky unit deployed more than third of its personnel in 29 combat and combat-support roles in Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. The unit's combat controllers and pararescuemen conducted more than 450 ground combat missions and 10,000 hours of Combat Search and Rescue, saving 54 personnel.

The squadron's Airmen also were among the first U.S. troops on the ground following the Haiti earthquake, establishing air operations at Port-au-Prince and controlling the first C-17 disaster-relief airdrop.

"I was there when that happened," Reed recalled, "and I can tell you, if it had not been for the efforts of that particular mission, that disaster-recovery operation could have gone south really, really quickly."

Headquarters earned its 9th Air Force Organizational Excellence Award in part by aggressively seeking new missions for the Kentucky Air National Guard. During its award period, which also ran from October 2009 to September 2011, the unit launched successful campaigns to bring two new missions to Kentucky -- a Fatality Search and Recovery Team; and a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package.

Reed noted that such accomplishments were remarkable, given the current climate of constrained resources and budget cuts that "don't necessarily support any new missions, and yet you find a way to bring two to Kentucky."

Headquarters Airmen also reached out to U.S. allies abroad, coordinating underwater search-and-rescue training for members of the Ecuador military and hosting foreign officers from 12 nations as part of comprehensive international education efforts.

"Congratulations again on your great accomplishments," Reed said. "I can think of no honor more fitting than one which simply says, 'Outstanding.' "

Kentucky's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, echoed Reed's praise, calling March 18 an "historic day."

"It's not every day we're fortunate to receive such distinguished awards, and certainly not three of them at one time," Tonini said. "If you're not from Kentucky, it might seem amazing -- maybe even impossible -- for a single unit, in this case the 123rd Airlift Wing, to receive not one, not two, but 15 Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards. Or that the headquarters unit could merit nine Air Force Organizational Excellence Awards. Some people might even be surprised to note that the best special tactics squadron in the nation resides right here in the Kentucky National Guard.

"But having spent 43 years in the Kentucky National Guard, I'm not surprised by any bit of this. I've seen for myself the professionalism and pride of our Airmen, both here at home and overseas. When these C-130s touch down in any of the seven continents, they bring with them the pride of Kentucky and a legacy that I believe is second to none. Our men and women exhibit their unbridled service in everything they do for the Commonwealth and their country, from Bagram to Kyrgyzstan, from Quito to Haiti, and most recently even Antarctica. Outstanding in every way."

Kentucky's assistant adjutant general for Air, Brig. Gen. Mark Kraus, encouraged the men and women of the Kentucky Air National Guard to take pride in their accomplishments and the heritage of those who came before them.

"You should be rightly proud, not only of your recognition as top achievers but also of the heritage of this organization -- an organization that from its very beginning valued excellence and built upon that foundation block by block," he said. "Let me encourage you to continue to mark a path of excellence, both professionally and personally. It will equip you for the tasks and challenges that lie ahead and serve to inspire a future generation of Kentucky Air National Guardsmen who will follow your lead.

"Thank you again for your exemplary service, your sacrifice and the difference you make every day toward mission accomplishment. Folks, I simply could not be more proud to serve along side you."

Col. Greg Nelson, commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, thanked his Airmen for their continued legacy of excellence in defense of America.

"What a great day to be in the Kentucky Air National Guard, and what an outstanding day to be a member of the 123rd Airlift Wing," he said. "To the men and women of the 123rd Airlift Wing: Thank You. This is your award. This is your day to celebrate.

"Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Curtis Carpenter and I can't thank you enough for the great things you did during this time period of October 2009 to September 2011. We also can't thank you enough for every day you've been in the fight since the attack of 11 September 2001.

"Thanks to the retirees who established our heritage, and thanks to every single one of you for the oath you took, swearing your allegiance to support the constitution and your promise to fight for our freedom every single day. The 123rd Airlift Wing is the best tactical airlift wing in the United States Air Force. Thank for standing ready, thank you for flying safe and fighting hard."