4 Airmen to Receive Bronze Star for Saving Lives in ISIS Fight

Lt. Col. Benjamin Mitchell (far left) with his Special Operations Surgical Team. They performed 16 life-saving operations during Operation Inherent Resolve in 2016. (Courtesy photo via US Air Force)
Lt. Col. Benjamin Mitchell (far left) with his Special Operations Surgical Team. They performed 16 life-saving operations during Operation Inherent Resolve in 2016. (Courtesy photo via US Air Force)

Four Special Tactics airmen, part of an elite Special Operations Surgical Team, will receive the Bronze Star this week for providing quick, life-saving care during an overwhelming surge of casualties while forward-deployed with special operations forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Air Force on Friday announced Capt. Cade Reedy, an emergency room nurse; Lt. Col. Matthew Uber, a nurse anesthetist; Lt. Col. Ben Mitchell, an emergency room technician; and Maj. Justin Manley, a surgeon from the 720th Operations Support Squadron will receive the military's fourth-highest medal during a ceremony at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Feb. 13, for their actions under Operation Inherent Resolve.

Two airmen who are part of the team, Maj. Nelson Pacheco, an emergency room nurse, and Tech. Sgt. Richard Holguin, a respiratory therapist, will not be available for the ceremony, according to 24th Special Operations Wing spokeswoman 1st Lt Jaclyn Pienkowski. The two airmen have already received their awards, Pienkowski said.

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The Special Tactics airmen treated more than 750 patients, managed 19 mass-casualty events, performed 16 life-saving surgeries and cared for partner-force casualties exposed to chemical weapons during the summer of 2016, according to the team's "Portraits in Courage" story.

The team was featured in the Air Force's 2017 "Portraits in Courage" program, which annually hails a variety of airmen for their heroic or life-changing acts.

The SOST converted an abandoned residence and a makeshift hospital and casualty safe-haven for treatment and surgery, according to the service. They were stationed less than two miles from a besieged city, where electricity, clean water, medical supplies and blood supply were scarce.

Hundreds of patients, limited supplies and ISIS weren't the only obstacles.

In an interview with Air Force Times last year, the team said they too were susceptible to a chemical weapons attack during their two month operation, hinting they were on the front lines in Aleppo, Syria, where chemical weapons such as chlorine gas were evidently used by Syrian government forces against civilians.

"Our SOSTs are equipped to perform life-saving battlefield surgery and trauma resuscitation, far forward, to ensure the men and women who make up our military and partner forces make it home alive," said Lt. Col. Eli Mitchell, commander of the 720th Operations Support Squadron. "We couldn't be more proud of the accomplishments of this team, which is on par with the level of expertise and competence we've come to expect from all the teams," he said in the release.

While local firefighters provided blood to the wounded on multiple occasions, Reedy at one point donated his own, giving more than 30 units of blood to the wounded.

During another incident, families escaping ISIS insurgents ran toward the hospital for shelter as machine gun fire rang out all around. Lt. Col. Ben Mitchell and Pacheco cared for the critically wounded "while the dead lay at their feet," the Portraits in Courage story said.

Inside, Uber and Holguin and the rest of the team treated scores of patients as mortar rounds flew nearby, donning body armor on themselves and readying weapons should the time come to fight.

During the deployment, Manley performed a first-time ever war environment procedure in which he used a balloon catheter "through a critically injured patient's femoral artery into the aorta" to subdue substantial bleeding, the Air Force said. The team used the move three more times in order to effectively buy patients more time before major procedures.

Another SOST member, Maj Jonathon Chin, will also be receiving a Bronze Star for a recent deployment during the same ceremony, Pienkowski said.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct Lt. Col. Eli Mitchell's squadron.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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