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33rd RQS Airmen awarded for heroism during Al Asad ballistic missile attack

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Sebastian Romawac
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs

A bright stream of light cut through the early morning Iraqi desert sky, and all U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shelby Duncan, 33rd Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk special missions aviator, could say was “Oh my God, there it is.”

On Jan. 8, 2020, Duncan witnessed the largest ballistic missile attack on U.S. citizens in history.

On a separate mission earlier in the day, U.S. Air Force Maj. Grace Gibbens, 33rd RQS HH-60 pilot, received word of a regional missile attack and returned to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, to provide medical assistance in the aftermath of the attack.

The scene of the base during her arrival was one of urgency.

“Everyone was trying to get out of dodge in a hurry,” Gibbens said. “When we landed, the flight line was flooded with aircraft rushing to leave in a small window of time.”

After landing, she mobilized a rescue formation of three HH-60s which included Duncan, U.S. Air Force Maj. Andy Travis and U.S. Air Force Capt. Anthony Delgado, 33rd RQS HH-60 pilots.

At this point, Gibbens knew there wouldn’t be support personnel to provide the helicopters with fuel they desperately needed to complete the mission. She quickly directed her crew to perform a contingency self-refueling, siphoning fuel from the base to evacuate in time.

“We were able to take off and went to a remote spot in the desert that was still within sight of the base,” said Duncan. “All three aircraft shut down and the pararescuemen set up a perimeter to keep security around the aircraft.”

The team assessed the medical supplies they were able to stow within the aircraft, as well as a game plan for close air support if necessary. The bitter cold and unforgiving darkness of the desert surrounded the team, but they knew the mission had to continue.

After several moments of game planning, the team noticed flashes over the horizon that lit up the sky.

“Once the missiles were inbounds, we were taking off to go back toward base,” Gibbens said. “We wanted to be on scene for the fallout for whoever needed medical help.”

Less than 30 seconds away from base, a second wave of missiles came, the formation narrowly avoided it by half a mile.

Despite the threat of a follow-up attack, the team landed on scene to insert their pararescuemen to assess casualties while the SMAs and pilots provided close air support and swept the airfield for unexploded ordnance.

“The rescue teams were the last ones out and the first ones back in,” said Duncan.

The courageous perseverance of the pilots, SMAs and pararescuemen involved led to the survival of thousands of base personnel and the securement of Al Asad Air Base.

Nine U.S. Airmen from the 563rd Rescue Group and four from the 33rd RQS, previously assigned to the 563rd RG, were awarded with medals for their heroic actions during their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to Travis and Duncan, the Air Medal with Valor was awarded to U.S. Air Force Capt. Charles Heisler and U.S. Air Force Capt. Bryan Tordoff, HH-60G Pave Hawk pilots, as well as Master Sgt. Christian Freeman, Master Sgt. James Hollenbach, Master Sgt. John Grady, Staff Sgt. Michael Buchalski and Staff Sgt. Robert Rutledge, HH-60G Pave Hawk SMAs.

The Air Medal with Valor is awarded to military personnel who distinguish themselves by single acts of heroism or extraordinary achievement in combat or combat support while in participation in aerial flight.

“When you join the rescue community, you realize early on that you’re doing something way bigger than yourself,” said Duncan. “You’re putting your own self on the line to rescue someone else because it is these things we do so that others may live. We’d rather give the spotlight to our community and teammates than ourselves because we know it’s never just been one person completing the mission alone.”

In addition to Gibbens and Delgado, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor was awarded to Maj. Michael Madden, HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot.

The Distinguished Flying Cross medal is our nation's highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement and is awarded to military personnel who distinguish themselves by single acts of heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. 

"Our rescue Airmen, through very sound leadership, managed to save all of our rescue Airmen from two direct impacts on our compound," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Losacker, 55th Rescue Squadron commander. "These Airmen in the aircraft clearly demonstrated notable courage, the type that will be written into history."