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181st Airman earns ALS's most prestigious award

SrA Branden Criss, 181st Security Forces Squadron. Photo by MSgt John Day

SrA Branden Criss, 181st Security Forces Squadron. Photo by MSgt John Day

Hulman Field, Ind. --

     Standing out while attending any Air Force leadership school is considered an honor, but standing out while attending Airman Leadership School is considered an excellent example of future leadership. One of the highest honors an Airman can receive is the John Levitow Award, given to an Airman who displays excellent leadership and academic qualities. This award is not given in every class and holds quite the prestige. SrA Branden Criss, 181st Security Forces Squadron received this award while attending ALS at Charleston AFB, S.C.
     "It is really an honor and very humbling," said Criss, who is from New Albany, Ind., and has been in the unit for five and half years. "I was also pretty surprised."
     John Levitow was an Airman first-class on Feb. 24, 1969 when he was asked to fill in for the regular loadmaster on an armed AC-47 named "Spooky 71" serving in Vietnam. It was his job to set the ejection and ignition controls on Mark 24 magnesium flares and pass them to the gunner who used them to illuminate the dark night skies for troops on the ground. As the gunner pulled the pin and tossed the flare toward an open cargo door, "Spooky 71" was hit by an 82-millimeter North Vietnamese mortar shell and the three-foot, 27-pound flare which burns at 4,000 degrees was rolling across more that 19,000 rounds of ammunition. Everyone in the plane was injured, yet, without hesitation, young Airman Levitow leapt onto the flare, covering it with his body and tossed it out the cargo door. He had received more than 40 shrapnel wounds from the initial mortar shell, but his selfless heroic actions saved the entire aircraft and its crew from certain death. For this, Levitow became the lowest ranking Airman to receive the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism during wartime.
     "This is an award that not very many Airmen receive and is an excellent example of how Criss has developed as an Airman," said Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Ennen, Chief of Security. "This says a lot for Criss, Secrurity Forces Squadron and the Wing."
     Criss distinguished himself at ALS and explained that he felt his ability to interact with people is what earned him the award. Being able to effectively communicate across several different levels and work through conflicts relating to different Air Force Speciality Codes and bases. There were 23 Airmen enrolled in the course and 21 of them were active duty.
     "I felt it was great to show some of the active duty Airmen that Guard members don't just read books; we are fully capable," he said. "It proved to many of the active duty Airmen that we carry quite a bit of knowledge."
     The course is a mixture of leadership training, including briefings, marching and interpersonal evaluations. Criss excelled in every aspect and felt it was a great experience. Criss highly recommends going in-residence to any Airmen weighing his options.
     "This course offers so much more than any book could possibly provide," Criss said convincingly. "You just have to go in there with an open mind as far as expectations."
Representing the 181st Intelligence Wing, Criss earned ALS's highest honor and followed in the footsteps of a great Airmen like John Levitow. He has proven he is ready for the next step to be a non-commissioned officer.
     "We are proud to see our Airmen develop into future leaders," said Ennen. "This puts a spotlight on Criss, but for a base that has recently transitioned - our ability to reinforce our Air Force Core Values and properly train young Airmen is of the utmost importance. This proves that the steps we have been taking to mold our young Airmen into leaders is extremely effective and we are proud to have Criss be that example."