JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
As one of the most recent Air Force Silver Star recipients stood at center stage of Forbes Hall at JBSA-Lackland during the award ceremony July 22, the reality of the moment hit him when he looked out into the jam-packed auditorium.
"My heart was about to jump out of my chest," said Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas, an Air Force Special Operations combat controller, before he received his second Silver Star becoming the only current active-duty Airman with two.
"I remembered when I was a young man and I sat in those chairs as my superiors received awards," Villegas said. "I was like, 'Wow! I want to be like those guys.'
"It's such an honor to be in front of our friends, families and our fellow Airmen," he said. "It's an incredible feeling to see them in the auditorium and know all eyes are on you."
However, the 16-year veteran with seven deployments to Afghanistan was more excited for his fellow Air Force Special Operations combat controller, Staff Sgt. Dale Young, to receive his Silver Star.
"To me, this was more about Dale," Villegas said. "The whole time (on stage) I was thinking, 'I'm so proud of him.' It was such an honor to stand next to him."
It seemed appropriate the two recipients would share the stage. Villegas was Young's first operational supervisor after Young completed the combat control training pipeline.
He looked on proudly as Young had his Silver Star pinned on by Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Fla.
"I was extremely honored and extremely proud to be up there next to Dale," Villegas said. "All I could think about was I helped make this young man become the leader and warrior that he is. I had a hand in that. It's such a great feeling."
Villegas also received his Silver Star, the third highest combat medal, from the special operations commander. He is assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field but is currently a recruiting liaison for the 369th Air Force Recruiting Group at JBSA-Lackland.
"I'm very humbled," Villegas said about the award. "The first one, you don't expect it and that in itself is a shock. To receive two - that's even more incredible and more of a shock.
"It's surreal and an honor to represent combat control. It's one thing to be nominated; to actually get awarded is unlike anything else."
The Del Rio, Texas native was recognized for his combat actions near the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Feb. 6-24, 2011.
In an 18-day mission riddled with trench warfare battles, Villegas controlled 40 aircraft that delivered more than 32,500 pounds of precision ordnance. The air strikes resulted in 21 enemy confirmed killed in action, and destroyed eight fighting positions and two communication repeaters.
During the mission, Villegas gathered intelligence from fortified insurgent positions at great risk. He also protected, covered, then pulled to safety, a teammate hit by shrapnel.
(See accompanying citation)
Col. Marc Stratton, commandant, Inter-American Air Forces Academy at JBSA-Lackland, was one of Villegas' first commanders when both served in the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, Pope Air Force Base, N.C., in 2002. Stratton is a special tactics officer who has spent 25 years in the career field.
He recalled Villegas, then a senior airman, impressed his teammates in the field while directly engaged with the enemy on numerous missions during his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2002.
"Little did any of us know at the time that we would be here many years later at an event recognizing his courage under fire, not merely for one isolated incident, but for consecutive exceptional selfless actions during successive engagements over time," Stratton said.
"In short, this oak leaf cluster carries a great deal of significance. The award of a second Silver Star is very rare for good reason," he added.