Three airmen received awards for their actions in evacuating nearly 260 U.S. and partner forces from harm's way during a Jan. 7 Iranian ballistic missile attack on Iraqi locations.
In a ceremony earlier this month at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Maj. Gen. Craig D. Wills, 19th Air Force commander, awarded the Bronze Star medal to Lt. Col. Adam C. Leachman, 71st Operation Squadron and CV-22 Osprey pilot.
He also presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to Lt. Col. Adam C. Darrow, 58th Operations Group Detachment 1 commander, and Tech. Sgt. Samuel T. Levander, 71st Operations Squadron operations section chief, according to a service release.
"While the world was preparing to ring in the new year, tensions in the Middle East continued to rise," Wills said, referencing the days preceding the missile attack. "On Dec. 31, 2019, a [group] of Iraqi militiamen surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and began attacking the perimeter, and once again the world held its breath to see what would happen."
The U.S. had launched strikes against the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group in retaliation for an earlier attack that targeted an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk and killed a U.S. contractor and wounded others. Protests at the embassy followed.
Then, Iran launched missiles at Al Asad Air Base, as well as another base in Erbil, Iraq, in retaliation for a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
Darrow and Levander received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their roles in a three-part evacuation of U.S. special operators. The location of the evacuation was not publicized for operational security reasons, according to the award citations, obtained by Air Force Times.
Leachman received the Bronze Star for a similar evacuation mission at Al Asad, according to the newspaper.
Levander and Darrow, part of a three-aircraft formation, had to quickly decide how many evacuees they could safely take aboard their Osprey tiltrotor aircraft; they were able to evacuate 132 personnel within 90 minutes of the first alert broadcasting an incoming attack, Air Force Times said.
But there were challenges. The team's intended runway was blocked due to "host nation interference," and they had to swiftly divert to another landing spot, according to the citation.
Then, while ferrying another 60 personnel out of a secondary location, the team had to divert to a third site to refuel. While at the third location, the attacks began.
Darrow faced further obstacles: His Osprey's flight controls began to malfunction, and a crewmember fell ill, according to Air Force Magazine. Still, "he flew with the formation to a desert landing site to link up with other contingency forces and executed a zero illumination, low visibility landing in close proximity to 18 other aircraft, 19 hours into a standard 12-hour crew duty day," according to the magazine, citing his award description.
Levander and Darrow's mission continued as they joined a 13-aircraft assault force to bring special operators into Al Asad as part of a reoccupation mission. In all, their actions took 24 hours to complete.
Meanwhile, Leachman, who led a team from RAF Mildenhall, England, for operations in the Middle East with roughly 24 hours notice, evacuated more than 60 personnel from Al Asad Air Base, Air Force Magazine reported.
He was also credited for another mission later in January that brought a fallen service member from the Syrian border through poor weather and a high-threat environment.
"Their names [are] forever associated with courage and bravery, mission accomplishment and excellence," Wills said of the airmen during the Nov. 3 ceremony. "They follow in the footsteps of the thousands of airmen who have gone before in the service of our nation and fought so we can enjoy freedoms and prosperity that most Americans take for granted. Most importantly, so that we, our people and our allies, can live in peace."
Early reports of the ballistic missile attack suggested that no Americans had been harmed in the strikes; however, the Pentagon repeatedly amended its statement regarding injuries, later confirming that dozens of troops experienced concussion-like symptoms.
In total, 110 troops suffered mild traumatic brain injuries, the Pentagon said in February.