Bronze Star for 6 NY National Guardsmen
In an open field in Afghanistan's Kandahar province last December, three gravely wounded American soldiers clung to life.
A booby-trap bomb had detonated among them, critically injuring their squad leader and leaving their unit in momentary disarray. The chance of their swift rescue was slim, due to the hail of Taliban rifle and rocket fire that rained down around them.
But a military helicopter managed to land about 50 yards from the wounded men.
And when it did, six members of the Long Island-based 106th Air Rescue Wing sprinted through the gunfire and hauled the wounded back to the helicopter.
Friday, in a cavernous aircraft hangar in Westhampton Beach, the six rescuers were awarded the Bronze Star with V for Valor, the nation's fourth-highest military honor.
"Congratulations, it's a proud day," said Major Gen. Patrick Murphy, head of the New York National Guard, of which the Rescue Wing is a part. "Thanks for everything you have done."
Capt. Ronnie Maloney, 43, said he and the others honored for bravery suppressed their fears because they were driven to make sure no one was left behind.
"It's not about the medals," Maloney said. "We do it for our brothers in arms."
Friday's awards marked the first time a Bronze Star with V for Valor had been granted for actions by a member of the 106th Air Rescue Wing, based at Gabreski Air Force Base in Westhampton Beach, according to several individuals attached to the unit.
The incident also was honored by the Jolly Green Association, a group of serving and retired members of Air Force Rescue, which named the incident its "Rescue Mission of the Year" for 2012.
The airmen who made their way to the injured men -- Maloney, of Middle Island; Senior Master Sgt. Erik Blom of Hampton Bays; Technical Sgt. Anthony Yusup of Bloomsburg, Pa.; Staff Sgt. James Dougherty of Hampton Bays; Staff Sgt. Matthew Zimmer of Westhampton; and Staff Sgt. Christopher Petersen of Commack -- are members of the elite 103rd Rescue Squadron.
The squadron, a subgroup of the 106th, consists of about four dozen "pararescuemen," airmen trained to reach endangered personnel under the most trying of conditions. Pararescuemen combine a range of skills, as endurance swimmers, scuba divers, parachutists, marksmen and paramedics.
The unit is perhaps best known for its actions during the 1991 "Perfect Storm," during which members flew to the rescue of a sailboat crew stranded in bad weather 250 miles out in the Atlantic. One of the unit's members, Tech Sgt. Alden Smith, perished when his helicopter, unable to refuel in midair because of high winds, was forced to ditch.
But in the past dozen years, the unit has been more quietly involved in helping to extract American troops from behind enemy lines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Members of the 106th are currently in Afghanistan and more are expected to deploy next year, according to Col. Thomas Owens, the wing's commanding officer.
Guard officials said Dougherty, 26, carried the most seriously injured soldier to the copter last December.
"You just do what you're trained to do," he said Friday.
Dougherty said he was uncomfortable with being singled out for recognition.
"It's humbling," he said, "because I know of others who have had to do far worse things and received less recognition for it."