Senior Master Sgt. Rick Johnson had deployed twice before to combat zones, but he never experienced the panic and confusion he saw in Iraq last March during a fatal rocket attack on Camp Taji.
"All around me, people were screaming," he said in a recent Air Force statement. "No one knew what to do. You go through all this training, but when it actually happens, you're frozen in fear."
But he chose to act, earning an Air Force Commendation Medal for his heroism that night and a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement for his efforts throughout the 8 ½-month deployment.
His bravery in the wake of the "extremely treacherous attack" showed his ability to give "assertive and directive leadership when it matters most," said Chief Master Sgt. Israel Nunez, superintendent of the 69th Aerial Port Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Johnson was lying in bed on March 11, 2020, when the first of over two-dozen 107mm rockets began raining down on the base north of Baghdad. The attack was one of several attacks on that base and others last year that the U.S. has blamed on Iran-backed Shiite militants.
His housing unit was hit, and as he sprinted from his room to the nearest bunker, three more rockets fell.
"I knew for a fact that there was no way I was going to survive if I stayed in my room," he said. "This was the most terrified I had ever been in my life."
Once inside the bunker, however, he decided he couldn't cower inside.
"There were people trapped in the rooms," he said. "I knew I needed to do something."
When the blasts paused, he went back to his room, grabbed his gear and began clearing rooms in an area still littered with unexploded rounds, entering a unit that threatened to collapse to help two wounded airmen before more rockets arrived.
After clearing debris to reach them, he performed lifesaving procedures until medics could arrive. "Everyone was scared, but we don't leave each other behind," he said. "I did all I could do."
The attack claimed the lives of three coalition troops – Oklahoma Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28, of Owasso, Okla., Army Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, of Hanford, Calif., and British combat medic Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon, 26.
Five others were critically wounded, Misawa Air Base commander Col. Jesse Friedel said in November after presenting a Purple Heart Medal to Senior Airman Daniel Alexander for a traumatic brain injury received when a rocket blew up 20 feet from him during the attack.
Each rocket "has 18 pounds of explosives on it, creates a 38-foot radius blast and throws shrapnel until something stops it," Friedel said in an Air Force video of the ceremony.
More than a dozen troops in total were wounded during the barrage. Airmen were afraid to sleep in the housing units for days afterward and spent their nights in the passenger terminal instead, Johnson said.
"This is an event we train for but we are never really prepared for … No one is," he said. "It was devastating."
The U.S. quickly struck back with a series of airstrikes on militia targets, but on March 14, 30 more militia rockets hit Taji in a daylight strike, wounding several more troops.
In the months that followed, the Pentagon deployed defensive systems to the region and accelerated plans to consolidate forces in Iraq, pulling troops from Taji and over half a dozen other bases as it wound down its part in the anti-Islamic State fight.
During his 8 ½-month deployment, Johnson directed airfield operations that supported nearly 10,000 missions, moving over 53,000 passengers and 19,000 tons of cargo. He enabled 12 airstrikes that destroyed 210 targets.
"I didn't do it for the medals," he said. Knowing he did his job and built relationships with his commander and airmen "was all the fulfillment I needed."