JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. —
Seven Mobility Airmen received the Bronze Star Medal here during a ceremony, Nov. 21.
Maj. Gen. Christopher J. Bence, U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center commander, presided over the ceremony and presented the Bronze Star Medal to the following Airmen for their work with the 621st Contingency Response Wing during their deployments to Northern Syria and Iraq from Oct. 2016-Feb. 2017: Col. Rhett Champagne; Lt. Col. Blaine Baker; Lt. Col. Robert Rayner; Maj. Jacob Becker; Capt. Andrew Schnell; Chief Master Sgt. Ricky Smith; Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Wright
“The Airmen on this stage truly put the rapid in our rapid global mobility,” Bence said. “It’s a true honor to be here today to award these Bronze Stars to these Airmen.”
The Bronze Star Medal is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces for heroic or meritorious service or achievement in a combat zone.
During their recent deployments in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Northern Syria, the Airmen led air base opening operations that enabled coalition forces to maintain and extend the range and persistence of counter-Islamic State group operations that sustained coalition forces conducting offensives that led to the elimination of IS in key regions and territories.
For Baker, 821st Contingency Response Squadron commander stationed at Travis Air Force Base, California, the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of receiving the Bronze Star Medal is the Airmen he had the pleasure of working with in Iraq.
“At the end of the day, the team made that mission happen,” Baker said. “We’re just fortunate to have the caliber of professionals in the CRW that are not just able to go do their mission, but they’re eager to go do their missions. That’s what you see in the bronze stars, is Airmen who are ready to lead wherever they’re called to go because they’re putting the mission above themselves.”
Baker deployed Qayyarah Airfield in Iraq as the Contingency Response Element commander, along with Champagne, Becker, and Smith. They were all part of the 79-person team of 621st CRW Airmen. According to Baker, the base had been overrun by IS in 2014 and had destroyed the runways.
“All of the structures across the base had been blown up and destroyed by IS in their rampage,” Baker said. “The Air Force Expeditionary Civil Engineering group came in, did some heavy repairs. Once those repairs were complete, literally within 24 hours of the cement drying on the runway, we established airfield operations and brought in the first [aircraft].”
While the CRE in Iraq had their hands full opening an airfield, Rayner, Schnell, and Wright were working in a CRE of their own along with 49 other 621st CRW Airmen in Northern Syria.
“We were there to degrade and deny IS the ability to continue to operate in the region,” said Schnell, 321st Contingency Response Squadron force protection flight commander stationed here and the CRE’s landing zone airfield manager at the time.
According to Schnell, they accomplished their mission by increasing the throughput of cargo to the airfield and brought the equipment in that was needed there to the fight.
“We were the most forward airfield that U.S. Central Command had at that time,” said Schnell.
The parallels between the CREs in Iraq and Northern Syria were evident in the threats they faced during their deployments.
“At one point [active combat] was within 20 kilometers from us,” Schnell said. “Every night when I would go out to run the landing zone, I could watch through my night vision goggles of things exploding,”
Baker stated that the days on deployment in Iraq could be summed up as intense.
“We were very well aware that the base was a key logistics platform and fire-base," Baker said. "In fact, the very first shipment that we got had rocket replenishment for the actual platforms that were firing out of [the airbase] and into Mosul.”
Another common theme between the CREs was the success they experienced down-range.
“We were able to establish a robust process [and] hand that off to air expeditionary forces,” said Schnell about Northern Syria. “They ended up standing up the 386th Air Expeditionary Squadron and it was all on us to train them to make sure they don’t fail once we leave.”
According to Baker, although there is still work to be done in eliminating IS in Iraq, the mission was key a key victory.
"About 1.3 million people in Mosul were liberated from the clutches of IS,” Baker said. “It was definitely a successful mission.”