By Staff Sgt. Chris Jennings , 181st IW/PA
/ Published January 16, 2009
Hulman Field, Ind. -- Two 181st Airmen were presented the Air Force Combat Action Medal on November 1 here at Hulman Field. It was a highlight for the Airmen, the 181st and the Indiana Air National Guard. Staff Sgt. Tyler Shields and Staff Sgt. Jerod Wright, 181st Vehicle Operations, became the first Indiana Air National Guard Airmen to receive the AFCAM for their heroic actions while deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004.
"What these Airmen did and accomplished was amazing," said Col. Jeffery Hauser, commander, 181st Intelligence Wing. "The AFCAM recognizes their actions and is a good representation of these Airmen's commitment to their country, their unit, and is a perfect example of our Air Force core values at work."
The Airmen continue to be humble about their achievements while serving in a combat zone, but the story of how and why they received the medal speaks for itself.
"Words are too little to describe the meaning of the AFCAM. A sense of humble accomplishment is the best I can say," Shields explained. "Without a doubt serving in combat in Iraq with Jerod Wright, Brian Gossett, Dereck McClure and Mike Boerner is one of the proudest things I have done in my life."
It was Aug. 16, 2004 and Wright and Shields, from the 181st Fighter Wing, were escorting an Army convoy between Tikrit, Iraq and Baghdad, Iraq. Shields was driving gun-truck 303 and Wright was manning the M249 machine gun atop the vehicle. Traveling along a hostile roadway, an Army tractor trailer hit a roadside improvised-exploding device which halted that vehicle and the entire convoy began taking small arms fire. Shields, without hesitation and making a quick decision, pulled alongside the damaged tractor trailer blocking enemy fire. This response saved the lives of the passengers on the tractor trailer. With the injured Army personnel protected from incoming fire, Shields hopped from his vehicle and returned fire with his M-16 while Wright unleashed more than 850 rounds of suppressive fire into a house nearby where the enemy was hiding. Putting themselves in the line of fire to protect their fellow servicemen earned Shields and Wright the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
"I don't remember thinking at that moment. As a company, we had already experienced multiple IED attacks and various other skirmishes. That afternoon I had seen an up close and personal attack on our convoy," Shields said. "The truck in front of us was disabled and we were hit instantly by small arms fire. I reacted in a way that any professional Airman and Soldier would, save the lives of my comrades, get the wounded to safety and secure the area by all means necessary. Jerod Wright and I did just that and completed our mission when the fight was over. It wasn't until long after the fight I started thinking what could have happened to us. We knew there was a wounded Army private, we knew we were the closest gun truck, and we knew that our job was to protect that convoy so that we may push on with the mission that we were ordered to do. I thank God that there was a protective hedge around all of us in a world that placed upon us challenges that threatened our lives daily."
Recollecting the exact details of that day, while hectic, seemed to just be another day in Iraq for these Airmen.
"We traveled nearly 14,000 miles across Iraq together for eight months," Wright said as he shared his experiences in the combat zone. "We were involved in numerous firefights and witnessed several IED explosions. There was never an easy day in Iraq, but the five of us who came from the 181st supported one another through every situation."
The 181st Airmen ended up in Iraq through a new joint forces program that had Air National Guard Airmen augmenting convoy security teams with the Army. After a crash course in combat infantry, vehicles and weapons training at Ft. Leanordwood, Mo., Wright, Shields, McLure, Boerner and Gossett headed for Iraq.
Receiving the AFCAM is special to Wright and Shields, but returning home safely with everyone uninjured was the most important 'mission accomplished' for these Airmen.
"To me, the award is a nice reflection of the hard work and sacrifices that myself,
Shields, McClure, Gossett and Boerner went through for 8-plus months in Iraq," Wright said. "The AFCAM also makes me very proud to have served with these guys. The five of us formed a bond that is still very strong to this day. When one of us was homesick or down, there were always four other friends to lend a helping hand and help out in any way we could. The five of us all came home together, and for that I am very thankful."
Some 181st Airmen might not know Wright or Shields, but there is one thing that makes them stand out among other Airmen. Both wear the Army's historically-honored "Big Red 1" on their uniforms. Their supporting role within the Army's famous 1st Division earned them the right to wear this on all their uniforms. The 'Big Red 1' has a deeply-rooted American military history that began when Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing stepped foot on European soil during WWI, from the beaches of Western France, Sicily, North Africa, Italy and into Germany during WWII, the jungles of Vietnam, and into Operation Iraqi Freedom, where Wright and Shields found themselves earning the right to wear the 'Big Red 1' with the Army's 1st Division.
"I still have people ask me why I am wearing the 1st Infantry Division Combat Badge on my battle dress uniform," Wright said. "Many members of the 181st have no idea as to what the five of us accomplished in Iraq. I feel like we made history and represented the 181st to the best of our abilities and the "Big Red One on our uniforms show that."
Wright and Shields' company were awarded 10 Purple Hearts, and the five Airmen were awarded Army Driver Badges, Army Commendation Awards, and the 1st Infantry Division Combat Patches.
"I hope the patch to other Airman is a symbol that we represent the United States of America and sometimes that representation comes with a price that we must be ready as Guardsmen, at all times, to go just like the five of us volunteered to go and fight," Shields said. "It reminds me that we five helped the entire world in the fight against terrorism. It reminds me that each time I put my uniform on that we are at war, even here in Terre Haute, Ind. A war that we must keep current training and the proper mind frame that we still have a job to do and it is far from over."
What these Airmen accomplished will be something they will carry with them and remember for the rest of their lives. The AFCAM is merely a symbol to let everyone else know that their courage, commitment to each other, dedication to country and nearly an ultimate sacrifice is appreciated by country and state. They know the story. At times they can still hear the small arms fire, feel the sand blowing against their uniforms and smell the burning vehicles. They'll never forget and neither will the 181st. Their story is yet another piece of 181st lore comprised of hard fought battles and valiant Airmen that make up the history of the wing and the entire Indiana Air National Guard.