By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 25, 2014
CLACKAMAS, Ore. --
They left behind civilian jobs or college class rooms to deploy, chancing their own safety to protect their teammates and carry out grueling operations that changed virtually every day during their six months in combat. Hometown heroes Doug Matthews, Matthew Matlock, Christopher Jones and George Thompson were honored this week.
In a ceremony attended by family, friends and military comrades on Monday, Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke, the Director of the Air National Guard, presented medals to four combat controllers of the 125th Special Tactics Squadron (STS), stationed at the Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore.
Tech. Sgt. Doug J. Matthews received the Silver Star medal, the nation's third highest combat military decoration, for gallantry in action against an enemy of the U.S. near Jalrez, Wardak Province, Afghanistan. In fitting tribute, U.S. Army Capt. Seth Nieman, who was rescued by Matthews during the intense firefight, had the honor of pinning the award on Matthews during the ceremony.
In addition, Staff Sergeants Matthew G. Matlock and Christopher T. Jones were honored with Bronze Star medals with Valor for their actions in their most recent deployments in Afghanistan. Both Airmen received one additional Bronze Star medal for subsequent deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Tech. Sgt. George M. Thompson was also awarded the Bronze Star medal for his Afghanistan deployment stemming back to his service three years ago.
Also in attendance for this prominent ceremony at the Armed Forces Reserve Center at Camp Withycombe was Chief Master Sgt. James W. Hotaling, Command Chief Master Sgt. of the Air National Guard and a former member of the 125th STS.
During opening remarks, Maj. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the Adjutant General for Oregon, highlighted the backgrounds and achievements of each Airman being honored.
"Their actions were truly selfless, which allowed them to keep their cool under pressure, inflict causalities on an attacking enemy force and their individual bravery saved the lives of their teammates."
During their deployments, each Airman was attached to different units throughout Afghanistan as Combat Controllers, coordinating air space as certified air traffic controllers.
"These citizen Airmen relied on their training and experience when it counted but mostly of all they relied on each other," said Hokanson.
The 125th Special Tactics Squadron has less than 80 members and is one of only two Air National Guard units in the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), a distinct facet in the AFSOC community that has over 400 active duty members stationed worldwide.
"The talent is readily evident when you realize that members of the 125th have won the prestigious Air National Guard's Outstanding Airman competition in every category; to include this year's outstanding Non-Commissioned Officer, Technical Sergeant Doug Matthews," said Hokanson.
The strength of the 125th STS is reflected in their unique mission and the camaraderie they have quickly shaped as a unit in less than nine years, becoming officially founded on May 1, 2005.
Capt. Scott Berg, Director of Operations for the 125th STS, has seen the development of the unit and its member's first-hand having been with the unit from the start. As a leap of faith, he left active duty and along with Chief Master Sgt. Hotaling, helped recruit Airmen like Matthews, Matlock, Jones, and Thompson.
"We went to the several active duty squadrons around the country and let these guys know that this was an option if they were thinking of separating, but wanted to stay involved in this career," said Berg.
The opportunity to build the organization with seasoned Airmen expedited the process, allowing the unit to put the cornerstones in place to staff the mission.
"They have spent so much time training and preparing, but with most of them wanting to go back to college, this was a way for us to tap into that resource," said Berg.
With a drilling schedule of only four times a year, keeping up with training proficiencies can be a tough challenge, yet the 125th has been able to build that training plan step-by-step.
"Are AGR's (active guard) team leaders have the schedule down, they have the training set and equipment in place when our members show up for a drill period," said Berg.
There are two-team Combat Control leaders and one for the Special Operations Weather Airmen in the unit. The condensed training phases are carefully etched out to maximize the time period constraints.
Master Sgt. Stephen Studenny, who joined the unit in 2006 after leaving active duty, is one of those team leaders. His role is to build a training plan for the "Red Team", which has 14 total members; 10 are drill status guardsmen to include Matthews, Matlock, and Jones.
"Two weeks out I will send them a preset schedule of what we are set to accomplish," he said.
Unlike many traditional National Guard units, there is no set annual training each year but the 125th will make several trips to Ft. Carson, Colo.
"We will work with the 29th Weapons School for two weeks, which allows us to take care of many of our core task," said Studenny.
When members deploy, Studenny is able to keep in contact with them through emails or occasional messages. He also sees daily situational reports and some of their mission sets.
"Some things are inherently easier being a part-time tasking, like taking surveys or air traffic control and other training as we jump a lot more, so our core proficiencies are better managed than active duty units," said Studenny.
After this recent set of deployments, many of the Airmen had to spend time to take care of physical issues. Having those assets in place in the squadron is part of the plan as well.
"It's extremely important to keep these guys healthy and get these guys back and up to speed as possible," said Studenny.
The unit has a human performance program with a physical therapist, strength coach, and eventually an athletic trainer to create a variety workout programs.
Helping oversee these medical issues, Master Sgt. Warren Ruedy, the unit's full-time medic works with the Airmen who have encountered injuries with the demanding training.
"There are some individuals who have ongoing issues and I touch base with them as needed and others that let me know if issues pop up between the drill periods," said Ruedy.
The paper work is part of it, but with for Ruedy it is keeping the total team approach in place and looking at each member's profile to help learn about a fellow teammate concerns.
"We felt fortunate that our injury profile at the end of the mobilization was as small as it was, considering the number of Airmen we pushed down range," he said.
The types of missions that Combat Controllers face impact everything from muscular and skeletal issues, to environmental hazards and post-traumatic stress.
"These guys are running on uneven ground with heavy gear and they are jumping off of things during fire-fights, not to mention just the traveling on terrible roads," said Ruedy.
Those resources for post-traumatic stress are built into the unit's mission set as well.
"We watch for certain red flags," said Berg. "There is a process, if PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or other stress related issues are present; we have a chaplain, there is a psychologist and other resources we can tap into."
As the Director of the Air National Guard, Lt. Gen. Clarke's responsibility is to oversee how all citizen Airmen deploy and then reintegrate back into their communities, while ensuring that all of the training and support are in place.
"I admire what they do, clearly their courage is beyond measure and the lasting impact they leave behind with their Afghani counterparts," said Clarke.
During his remarks, while presenting the medals, Clarke reflected on unit's ability to execute the mission based on the total team concept of training and community.
"All that training paid off. People think it's my job or others, that send people like these Airmen off to war, that's anything but true; it's the family, friends, and community. Make no mistake about it, that's how America works," he said.
In maintaining the unit's core values, the Airmen honored during the ceremony are a reflection of the team concept fostered within the 125th STS and touched on repeatedly by both Clarke and Hokanson.
"These men represent not only exceptional individuals, they are part of a truly exceptional team of the 125th Special Tactics Squadron," Hokanson said.