Alaska Air National Guard 212 rescue squadron members Maj. Matthew Komatsu, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Barendregt, Master Sgt. Kyle Minshew and Senior Airman Andrew Nichols were honored with Bronze Stars for acts of heroic rescue and bravery at an award ceremony on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Friday, Dec. 7.
The Bronze Star is the fifth highest military decoration.
According to Maj. Joseph Conroy, the award offers a chance for reflection and affirmation on saving lives and recovering those who perish.
“Basically, it instills morale and gets everyone all riled up,” he said.
On Sept. 14, 2012, Komatsu, Barendregt and Minshew, all of the 46th expeditionary rescue squadron, had the night off on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, and planned on taking it easy watching movies, working out at the gym and cleaning weapons and equipment.
Then a call came through. Fifteen insurgents had breached the base perimeter armed with assault weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide improvised explosive device vests.
“So we put out a call and it came back, ‘Yes, help, we need you,’” Barendregt said. “We got a team together and responded toward the gunfire.”
The trio led their team across a field of open fire to reach the casualties. The gunfire was close, about 50 meters to the right and 150 meters to the front.
“We ran to where the injured were,” Komatsu said. “The guys treated them, bandaged them up, stabilized them and while this was going on, there was gunfire.”
The situation, he said, was intense.
Their actions ended up saving seven lives.
Back in the summer of 2011, Nichols was serving with the 83rd expeditionary rescue squadron in Afghanistan. On July 19, he and his crew set out to rescue an injured soldier suffering from a critical gunshot wound to the leg. The solider was temporary housed inside an armored vehicle — and gunfire rained down from multiple directions.
Nichols and his crew sprinted 100 meters across open and unprotected terrain, rounds hitting within five meters.
Once he reached the injured soldier, Nichols hefted him over his shoulder and ran across steep terrain. Gunfire landed all around them as he made his way to an awaiting helicopter.
The soldier was stabilized and underwent surgery. Nichols is credited with saving his life.
“I hope you recognize how bad-ass this guy’s mission was,” Barendregt said.
Nichols, however, was more humble.
“There are a lot of folks who gave more over there,” he said. “When you’re zipping people into bags you think, ‘What’s a medal?’”
He simply did what his training asked of him.
The injured solider he carried gave a lot more, he insisted.
“There were guys in his team killed just that morning,” he said. “So this (award) is insignificant compared to that.”
While he’s grateful to have saved a life, Nichols doesn’t view himself as a hero.
“This is what we do for work,” he said.