MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — A medical condition once dashed Capt. Melissa May’s dream of becoming an Air Force pilot.

Undeterred, May sought and received a medical waiver to attend pilot training school several years after graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1995.

Recently, May was among three F-16 pilots from Misawa’s 14th Fighter Squadron awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their achievements during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For the 30-year-old May, the medal validates that she belongs in the elite group of Air Force fighter pilots.

“I never thought that ever in my life I would be flying fighters in a war and getting rewarded for it,” she said.

Capts. Jason Plourde and Shamser Mann also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which can be awarded to any military member for an act of heroism or extraordinary achievement while in aerial flight.

Congress established the award in 1926.

Capt. Charles Lindbergh of the U.S. Army Corps Reserve was the first recipient, honored for his 3,600-mile solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

The three 14th Fighter Squadron pilots’ aerial feats happened in the Iraqi War’s frenetic first few days.

Mann, who was away from Misawa this week on temporary duty and could not be interviewed, supported a 28-aircraft strike package and launched four missiles to defend aircraft over Baghdad, according to base officials.

On the third night of combat, May was among four F-16s providing escort for F-18 and F-14 strike aircraft hitting targets in Baghdad.

During the mission, the Misawa F-16 pilots received a “time-sensitive tasking” to drop bombs on a surface-to-air missile site.

“It was the first time our squadron had carried bombs during this war,” May said.

May piloted one of two fighters that went in to drop the bombs while the other two provided escort, she said.

The mission was intense.

Poor visibility forced the pilots to fly at a low altitude. Through night vision goggles, May could see gunfire and tracers on the ground, she said. Immediately after dropping munitions, the pilot leading the formation reported a missile was tracking him; he ditched his fuel tanks to avert a strike.

“It was a no-kidding close call,” May said.

Plourde flew on a similar mission. He and Capt. Kris Padilla, also an F-16 pilot with the squadron, were supporting aircraft that were striking targets over Baghdad when Plourde was ordered to take out a surface-to-surface missile system in downtown Baghdad.

With Padilla as his wing man, Plourde dropped two bombs on the target while avoiding collateral damage in the heavily populated area.

“We train every day to the worst possible case,” Plourde said, “so when that happens in real life, we’re ready for it. The training takes over.”

When Plourde heard he would receive the medal, he said, “The first thing I thought of was Capt. Padilla. Even though it went to me, I’m not the only one.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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