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Misawa pilots save Iraqi civilians, earn 2014 Mackay Trophy

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh accompanied by a National Aeronautic Association spokesman present the Mackay Trophy to Capts. David Kroontje and Gregory Balzhiser during the NAA fall awards ceremony in Arlington, Virginia, Dec. 3, 2015. The trophy is awarded for the “most meritorious flight of the year by an Air Force person, persons, or organization.” Kroontje and Balzhiser earned the trophy as a result of their heroic efforts during an air strike that helped Peshmerga forces the next day set up a safe corridor from Mount Sinjar, Iraq, saving the lives of 40,000 stranded civilians including women, children, elderly, and the infirm. Kroontje has since transferred to the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and Balzhiser is now a member of the 31st Operations Support Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. (Courtesy photo)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III accompanied by a National Aeronautic Association spokesman present the Mackay Trophy to Capts. David Kroontje and Gregory Balzhiser during the NAA fall awards ceremony in Arlington, Va., Dec. 3, 2015. Kroontje and Balzhiser earned the trophy as a result of their heroic efforts during an airstrike that helped Kurdish Peshmerga forces the next day set up a safe corridor from Mount Sinjar, Iraq, saving the lives of 40,000 stranded civilians including women, children, elderly, and the infirm. (Courtesy photo)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- Stranded on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, without food, water, medical care, facing starvation and dehydration, and under constant enemy gunfire, more than 40,000 Iraqi Yazidis were saved by a multinational coalition force led by Misawa Air Base F-16C Fighting Falcon pilots during an airstrike Aug. 9, 2014.

The 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron pilots' heroic efforts during the strike helped Kurdish Peshmerga forces the next day set up a safe corridor from Mount Sinjar, saving the lives of the stranded civilians including women, children, elderly, and the infirm, and earned them the 2014 Mackay Trophy, which was presented during a ceremony Dec. 3 in Arlington, Virginia.

"Getting from the flightline to putting bombs on target takes an immense effort by Airmen across many disciplines," said Capt. David Kroontje, who has since transferred to the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. "I'm happy and gratified to know that all the training and effort we put in every day allowed us to have such a positive impact on such a large group of peaceful folks just trying to live their lives."

Kroontje, and his wingman, Capt. Gregory Balzhiser, now a member of the 31st Operations Support Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy, made up Ironhand Flight 41. The two pilots flew four attacks during the eight-hour mission spanning 500 miles over enemy-controlled terrain. They destroyed three Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) blockades, multiple armored vehicles, observation posts, and killed dozens of ISIL fighters attacking Yazidi civilians on the mountain.

"Thanks for showing us how this business is supposed to be done," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III when presenting the trophy to the pilots. "Thanks for showing that humanity is the root of airpower. And thanks for showing how professional our Airmen can do a job in a horrible situation, at night, in a place you never dreamed of going."

The Mackay Trophy was first presented by Clarence Mackay in 1912 and was later deeded to the National Aeronautic Association. Administered by the Air Force and NAA, the trophy is awarded for the most meritorious flight of the year by an Air Force person, persons, or organization.

"Really it's all about focus," Kroontje said. "When you are taking people's lives, there is no room for error. For me, I was only thinking about how (my wingman) and I could work together to accomplish what turned out to be a challenging set of mission requirements."

Lt. Col. Luke Casper, the 13th Fighter Squadron commander, said their selfless bravery epitomized the Air Force core values displaying sound leadership and attention to detail.

"We're proud of our Airmen, officers and enlisted alike, and I'm humbled to have the opportunity to serve alongside true patriots like 'Smack' Balzhiser and 'Compton' Kroontje," the commander said. "Airmen, like these two, showcase what it truly means to be a Misawa Wild Weasel."

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