Three New River Marines were awarded a prestigious medal Monday for their part in rescuing a downed pilot near Benghazi, Libya, in March 2011.
It's a mission they said would not have been possible without the V-22 Osprey.
"I think this mission in particular couldn't have happened without a V-22," said Capt. Erik Kolle, the MV-22B pilot who flew the aircraft during the rescue mission.
On Mar. 22, 2011, a U.S. Air Force pilot crashed his F-15E near Benghazi, Libya, and Kolle and his two crew chiefs -- Staff Sgt. David Potter and Sgt. Daniel Howington, from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266 with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- responded quickly to perform a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) mission to rescue the downed pilot, who was evading capture by the enemy at the time, according to the award citation.
Kolle and his team immediately launched into the uncertain environment in an MV-22B Osprey from the USS Kearsage on which they were stationed with the 26th MEU. The Marines safely flew the aircraft about 150 miles at night and rescued the running Air Force pilot in under 90 minutes, according to the citation.
The Marines were awarded for their actions with the Air Medal with the combat distinguishing device for valor during a ceremony filled with dignitaries -- to include II Marine Expeditionary Force Commanding General Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox and 2nd Marine Air Wing Commanding General Maj. Gen. Glenn Walters -- aboard New River Monday morning.
The Air Medal is awarded to any servicemember who "distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight," according to information from the U.S. Navy.
"Obviously, I'm proud," Kolle said, "but any of our flight crews or any Marine flight crews could have executed (the mission) that night. We just happened to be on the flight schedule.
"It's more a validation of how we train in the Marine Corps and with the V-22."
Kolle said he views the award as a recognition for the entire VMM 266 squadron, but mostly for the Osprey -- a statement both Potter and Howingtown agreed with.
"I'm not going to say that a V-22 is required for every TRAP, but for this one it was," Kolle said. "There were some other helicopter assets in the Mediterranean at the time, but because of the distances involved they either wouldn't have had enough gas or would have taken several hours longer."
Lt. Col. Chris Boniface, the commanding officer for VMM 266, agreed with Kolle, saying the V-22 is what made their mission so successful.
"Remember, this guy was evading capture at the time and we thought he was going to be captured at any moment," Boniface said. "So the speed that the MV-22B can move at was extremely critical. The helos from another unit ... would have taken twice as long and there's a good chance he probably would have been captured."
The award citation, which was signed by the commandant of the Marine Corps on behalf of the president, said that the Marines, by their "superior airmanship, perseverance, and loyal devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions, (the Marines)...upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval service."
The newly awarded Marines are currently training with the 26th MEU, preparing to deploy back to the Mediterranean this spring.