Without regard for their own safety, six members of the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing stepped off two helicopters last December and crossed an open field in Afghanistan, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire coming from Taliban forces.
Fifty yards away, four critically injured soldiers—three Americans and one Afghan—fought for survival following an ambush that targeted their 25-member platoon. Several of the soldiers were critically injured by an improvised explosive device.
Among the airmen to respond were Senior Master Sergeant Erik S. Blom of Hampton Bays, and Staff Sergeant Matthew F. Zimmer of Westhampton. Both helped treat the wounded on the battlefield and moved them back to the helicopters to be evacuated.
On Friday, a crowd gathered in a hangar at the Air National Guard base in Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton to watch as Sgt. Blom and Sgt. Zimmer, along with the four other members of their unit—Captain Ronnie Maloney of Middle Island, Technical Sergeant Anthony Yusup of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, Staff Sergeant James Dougherty of Rocky Point, and Staff Sergeant Christopher Petersen of Commack—received the Bronze Star for Valor for their bravery and selflessness during the rescue mission.
The award is the fourth-highest that the United States can bestow on a soldier. Staff Sgt. Petersen, a full-time member of the 106th Rescue Wing’s 103rd Rescue Squadron, was named National Guardsman of the Year by the United Service Organizations earlier this year.
U.S. Representative Tim Bishop called the airmen “extraordinary people who have done extraordinary things” during Friday’s ceremony.
“This is a very proud day,” he said. “It’s a proud day for the six airmen that we honor and their families. It’s a proud day for the Wing. It’s a proud day for the Guard. And it’s a proud day for our country.”
Capt. Maloney, a combat rescue officer and the five pararescuemen—known as “Guardian Angels” for the high-risk rescues they carry out behind enemy lines—landed by helicopter in the Kandahar Province on December 10, 2012, where the soldiers had been ambushed, leaving four badly hurt.
The airmen, members of the 103rd Rescue Squadron, ran across an open field, exposing themselves to enemy fire while making their way to the injured, officials said. When rocket-propelled grenades exploded just meters from them, they shielded the wounded soldiers with their own bodies before carrying them back to the helicopters.
All four injured soldiers, including one Afghan, were evacuated safely, though Staff Sergeant Wesley R. Williams, 25, of New Carlisle, Ohio, lost three limbs in the ambush and later died of his injuries.
After Friday’s ceremony, hundreds of men and women from the Air National Guard, local leaders and community members lined up for a chance to shake the hands of the six honorees.
The airmen reacted modestly to the recognition.
Emily Blom, Sgt. Blom’s wife, said her husband felt uncomfortable with the attention, because while others viewed his actions as heroic, he viewed them as simply “doing his job.”
Sgt. Zimmer responded humbly, as well. “I’ve seen a lot more guys go through a lot more stuff,” he said while standing by his girlfriend, Kelly Beers.
Sgt. Blom, 37, is a traditional guardsman who serves part-time. He joined the Army in 1994 and graduated from airborne and ranger school before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 2000. He has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and also works as a Suffolk County Police officer.
Sgt. Zimmer, 31, joined the Air Force in 2001, and previously served as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialist at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington from 2002 to 2007. He joined the New York Air National Guard in 2009.
During the rescue, Sgt. Zimmer treated patients suffering from gunshot and shrapnel wounds, and also assisted a seriously wounded soldier who had lost multiple limbs. Sgt. Blom established a casualty collection point and distributed his own ammunition to others while facilitating the movement of the injured to the helicopter.
“Courage, intelligence, proficiency are just some of the words that can describe these guys,” Capt. Maloney, the leader of the unit, said during Friday’s ceremony. “Today, I am humbled to stand next to them.”