James honors Gulf Coast service members at Salute to the Military

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Holly Mansfield
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James attended the 38th annual Salute to the Military as the keynote speaker to honor service members from across the Mississippi Gulf Coast Oct. 25.

James along with Sen. Roger Wicker, Rep. Steven Palazzo and Southern Mississippi community leaders gathered to pay tribute to men and women who have and currently serve in the U.S. military.

“It’s really important that Americans understand more about the important work that the military does and that they show that appreciation,” James said. “I know that appreciation means the world to our men and women in uniform and it certainly means a lot to us who are senior leaders in Washington as well. There’s an old saying that ‘We are the world’s greatest Air Force and we are powered by Airmen.’ I hope you can tell I am very proud of all of our military members and exceptionally proud of our Airmen.”

Nine military members from across the Mississippi Gulf Coast were nominated for the Thomas V. Fredian Community Leadership Award due to their commitment to bettering the military and surrounding community. Petty Officer 1st Class Adrianyon Riley Sr., of the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Mississippi, was this year’s recipient.

During the event, James took time to recognize some of Keesler’s award winning Airmen and shared stories of how they helped strengthen ties between the military and local community.

“Stats are stats,” James said. “I think stories really tell it like it is. Stories like that of Tech. Sgt. Cassandra Cruz, who was selected for the 12 Air Force Outstanding Airmen of the Year award. In addition to performing her job, she went above and beyond to improve the 81st Force Support Squadron mission and dedicated more than 1,000 hours to sexual assault prevention and response. She is a great example of the hard work and unyielding commitment to the mission and the idea that we serve our fellow Airmen.”

In addition to highlighting Cruz, an 81st FSS Airman lLeadership school instructor, James also recognized Staff Sgt. Jonathan Bellio, a 338th Training Squadron radio frequency instructor and USO Airman of the Year Award recipient, and stated they were ambassadors for not only Keesler AFB but for the Air Force.

“These Airmen epitomize the Air Force core values,” James said. “Not only are we blessed to have them in our ranks because they provide excellence in their specific career fields but also because they went over and above the call to help others and in some cases save others from near death experiences.”

According to James, Bellio symbolizes the core values because he is willing to go beyond the call of duty even when he is not at work.

“In March of 2015, Bellio was off duty and came upon a car that flipped over during a car accident and went into a freezing river with a woman trapped inside,” James said. “When the local news station arrived on scene and interviewed him he declined to be identified. He didn’t want credit for his actions. He just said he did what anyone would do. In fact he said, ‘I was just doing my job.’ I am so happy to recognize him tonight for his quick thinking and bravery.”

The secretary also thanked the community members present for their continuous support.

“I do recognize it takes a special community to embrace our military as closely as all of you have,” James said. “The relationship between Keesler and Biloxi is rock solid because of your hard work, maintaining it and keeping it going forward.”