JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
An Air Force Special Operations combat controller stood at attention on the Forbes Hall stage at JBSA-Lackland July 22 as his citation for the Silver Star, the third highest combat medal, was recited.
Staff Sgt. Dale Young's face was expressionless, his body motionless, eyes forward, fists clenched at his side. He listened as family, friends and Battlefield Airmen, more than 500 in all, had their eyes trained on center stage while words about his gallantry in action flowed out of the auditorium' s speakers.
The reading complete, Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Fla., pinned Young's Silver Star on his uniform and handed him his citation.
The commander then motioned for Young's immediate family to come on stage for photos.
As they gathered around the honoree, his father-in-law let out a not so subtle, "You can smile now Dale!" With that, a smile crossed the young Airman's face and the auditorium filled with laughter.
"Yeah, it did kind of (break the ice)," said Young, currently assigned to the 342nd Training Squadron at JBSA-Lackland as a combat control instructor.
Helping him overcome his nervousness on stage was a comrade-in-arms, friend and mentor. Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas, a fellow combat controller, and Young sat side by side during the ceremony in which Villegas also received a Silver Star, his second.
"There were a few moments where Ish and I would look at each other and whisper, 'I'm proud of you, brother,'" Young said. "(When it was over), we shook hands, he gave me a hug on stage and he told me again he was proud of me. I told him the same thing and thanked him."
Young said being awarded the Silver Star is special and surreal. To receive the honor at the same time one of his mentors became the only active-duty Airman with two Silver Stars had Young struggling to describe the moment.
"The fact that we have a history together makes it special," Young said about Villegas, who was Young's first operational supervisor after completing the combat control pipeline.
"I'm glad to be a part of his recognition," he said. "I'm proud to know him, proud to be his friend and extremely proud I got a chance to work with him. He taught me a lot of what I know. That made it extra special to me.
"He's someone I always looked up to. To stand next to him on stage is kind of indescribable; it's hard to put into words," he added. "I give credit to the guys who went before me, the guys who taught me the skills I needed and the way you act to get me where I am today. A lot of that credit can go to Sgt. Villegas."
Young's training was put to the test during a May 19-23, 2009 mission near the Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The then 25-year-old was the primary combat control joint terminal attack controller assigned to an Army Special Forces team.
The team came under immediate and continuous enemy fire from the moment of infiltration that continued for the next 94 hours. Young controlled up to 11 coalition aircraft during the engagement despite close enemy fire and grave danger (see accompanying citation)
One of the first questions at a press conference following the ceremony posed to Young was, "Did you ever doubt your survival or think you wouldn't get out?"
"From the training I received, even though I could feel rounds coming close to me and exploding near my position, I felt I was playing offense the whole time," Young said. "I had a good plan in place and I knew I had good teammates. We worked together well, not just the guys on the ground but everybody in the air.
"It's second nature to revert back to your training," he added. "Things just happen. You react, you shoot, you move, you communicate with everybody else, you pray when you get a chance. Aside from that, you're just doing what you've been trained to do."
It also meant the skills learned from all his supervisors not only resulted in mission success, but ultimately a seat next to Villegas at center stage.