‘Outstanding’ airman on way to collect award performs one more good deed, saving a child’s life

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kenneth O?Brien of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, is pictured here at Kadena Air Base, Japan, on July 30, 2019. O?Brien, who was one of 12 recipients of the Air Force Association?s award for outstanding airmen of 2019 on Sept. 16, 2019, saved a child's life on his way to the awards ceremony.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 24, 2019

An airman traveling from Okinawa to the U.S. to receive one of 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year awards saved a child’s life on the way — and that’s only one of the impressive deeds attributed to Tech. Sgt. Ken O’Brien.

The Indiana native also has served on President Donald Trump’s security detail during his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saved a civilian’s life after pulling the person from a burning vehicle in South Korea, and “played an instrumental role” in the 2018 Thailand Cave rescue mission, an Air Force Association write-up says.

“I can’t decide if he’s Superman or Mayhem (the guy on the insurance commercials),” said Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, in a Facebook post last week, noting the tendency for “bad stuff” to happen around O’Brien.

But O’Brien appears to be the one keeping bad stuff from getting worse.

A special tactics team element leader assigned to the 320th Special Tactics Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Japan, the pararescueman was the American who went deepest into Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand during the effort to rescue 13 members of a soccer team who became trapped there in June and July 2018.

“He was essential in creating the rescue plan,” the Air Force Association said. “During the mission, he also led the effort to retrieve and successfully resuscitate a Thai Navy SEAL.”

He was “rightfully recognized” as one of the service’s 12 outstanding members, Slife said in his post. The recipients were named in mid-August, but O’Brien’s actions on the way to collect the award seemed to confirm his worthiness.

“On his flight back to the states from Okinawa last weekend … an infant starts choking and stops breathing,” Slife said.

“Our man OB leaps into action,” he continued, referring to O’Brien by a nickname, “clears the breathing passage, resuscitates the kid, hands him back to the parents and then goes on about his business.”

AFSOC personnel or units accepted four other awards at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference last week, Slife said in an earlier post.

An Air Force board selected the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year from a pool of 36 nominees, officials said earlier this year.

Among them are airmen who led military justice teams, secured airbases, oversaw major projects or supported warfighting operations in the Middle East, while also writing books, volunteering for good causes, developing new time-saving systems or advancing their education.

For example, Master Sgt. Jahara Brown, a plans and programs superintendent for the 78th Security Forces Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., led security planning at home, streamlined the movement of 1,500 weapons in 48 hours while deployed in support of anti-Islamic State group operations, and saved six airmen’s lives after a vehicle rollover, despite being injured in the incident himself, an Air Force Association write-up says.

Staff Sgt. Gary G. Jeffrey III, a medical materiel technician assigned to the 81st Medical Support Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., “secured a cross-command leech treatment transfer within 24 hours,” avoiding a two-week delay and saving a patient’s limb, the association said.

The full list of recipients is online.

Slife was still trying to figure out how close he wanted to get to O’Brien, he said in his post on Sept. 17.

“Sheesh! I don’t know whether I want to be right next to him in case some bad stuff goes down, or whether I want to be as far away from him as possible because bad stuff always seems to go down around him,” he said.

Twitter: @chadgarland