POPE ARMY AIRFIELD, N.C. - Already the U.S. Air Force's most decorated community since the end of the Vietnam War, Air Force Special Tactics added to its total over the weekend.
Three Air Force Special Operations Command airmen received Silver Star and Purple Heart medals in a ceremony at Pope Field, N.C., Jan. 10, while three Special Tactics airmen with the Kentucky Air National Guard were awarded the Bronze Star with Valor and Distinguished Flying Cross medals in a separate ceremony at Staniford Field, Ky., Jan. 12.
"You will say you were just doing your job, but you were not just doing your job. You knew the dangers, and you did not back down," said Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, AFSOC commander and presiding official for the ceremony at Pope Field.
Combat controllers Master Sgt. Delorean Sheridan and Staff Sgt. Christopher Baradat received the Silver Star, the U.S. military's third-highest decoration for gallantry in combat, for their efforts in Afghanistan last year.
The 123rd Special Tactics Squadron Kentucky guardsmen Tech. Sgt. Jeff Kinlaw and Tech. Sgt. Robert Bonello received the Bronze Star with Valor while Capt. Nate Tingle received the Distinguished Flying Cross all for actions executed in Afghanistan as part of an expeditionary force.
Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Whiddon, a special tactics tactical air control party member, received the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat also in Afghanistan. Sheridan, Baradat and Whiddon are assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Field, N.C.
"Getting the Silver Star is a humbling experience, but I was just doing my job," Baradat said. "Everyone did what they had to do that day to make the mission successful."
Fiel presented the Pope Field decorations in front of an auditorium full of the honorees' family and friends, fellow Special Tactics airmen, members from Army Special Forces members, and representatives for North Carolina's congressional members.
"Your strength and tenacity epitomizes what being a warrior and a Special Tactics airman is all about," said Fiel.
All three airmen attributed their ability to act decisively in critical moments on the battlefield to the extensive physical and physiological training they undergo. Training enabled Sheridan to act largely from muscle memory, he said.
"The training kicks in and there is a reason why it is as rigorous as it is because, at these times, you have to be able to step up and react," he said.
In March 2013, Sheridan was preparing for a mission with his Army Special Forces team when an Afghan National Police Officer working with the team opened fire from a machine gun at 25 feet. The teammates to Sheridan's immediate left and right were hit.
Puffs of smoke blew up around him. When he realized what was happening, his first instinct was to grab his team leader and get him out, he said.
As he turned to react, Sheridan saw his team leader shot in the head at close range.
At the same time, a group of about 20 insurgents fired on the team from a position outside of the base in what was a coordinated attack.
To Sheridan the insider attack was like "having someone sneak into your house in the middle of the night." It provoked an instantaneous reaction.
He ran toward the shooter, jumped into the turret of an armored vehicle and shot him twice with his pistol and nine times with an M4 rifle.
One by one, he dragged his team leader, team sergeant and the infantry squad noncommissioned officer in charge to an area where they could be extracted by medevac.
Sheridan, 33, called in six medevac flights and helped transfer his wounded teammates to litters while controlling aircraft overhead.
He helped save the lives of 23 critically wounded personnel on what was his sixth deployment.
Baradat, of San Rafael, Calif., was working as part of an Army Special Forces team in April 2013 when tasked to retrieve a group of pinned-down coalition forces.
His job was to control the air assets supporting the team on the mission. When they came under fire, Baradat directed the 30mm guns of the A-10s overhead on the enemy prior to taking cover with his teammates.
When he realized he could not control the aircraft effectively from his covered position, he moved from safety to the center of the compound where he was sprayed with dirt from consistent machine gun fire.
Standing in the thick of the firefight did not phase Baradat, though his teammates were urging him to take cover.
"That was where I needed to be standing to communicate with the aircraft and to get the mission done," he said.
Baradat, 24, continued to direct the A-10 and AC-130 aircraft even as his team left the area with the coalition members by jumping on the running board of his vehicle, again exposing himself to fire.
As a result of his actions, 150 coalition members were saved and more than 50 enemies killed on what was his third deployment.
On receiving their decorations, both Sheridan and Baradat thanked the Army members of their deployed teams for attending the ceremony.
"We lost two-thirds of our team [on the mission] so about half of the guys who were there today were wounded in the firefight," Sheridan said.
Lt. Col. Jason Self, commander of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, said his airmen contributed to the proud heritage of the squadron.
"The 21st Special Tactics Squadron has a legacy of valor and heroism," Self said. "Both Sheridan and Baradat contributed to this continued legacy of the unit in their phenomenal performance of protecting the lives of our servicemen."
Sheridan and Baradat's Silver Stars are the 27th and 28th for the Special Tactics community since the end of the Vietnam War. Conflicts that include Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, Operation Just Cause in Panama, the 1993 Battle of the Black Sea in Somalia - later made into a Hollywood motion picture titled "Black Hawk Down," and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that span, four members of the community have also been awarded the Air Force Cross, second highest decoration for extraordinary heroism in combat to only the Medal of Honor.
As the small ribbons that speak volumes were pinned to the chests of the three airmen, Fiel referred to their acts of extraordinary heroism as an example to all.
"This calls us to look into ourselves and be prepared for our own moments of courage and bravery."