JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
Two Air Force Special Operations Command combat controllers currently stationed in San Antonio were each presented a Silver Star for gallantry in combat during a ceremony July 22 here.
The two combat controllers, Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas and Staff Sgt. Dale Young, were decorated by Lt. Gen. Eric E. Fiel, commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Fla. The Silver Star is the third highest award exclusively for combat valor.
"Gentlemen, your bravery and tenacity epitomize what being a warrior is all about," Fiel said during the ceremony. "Your brave actions under hostile fire at great risk to your lives not only decimated the enemy but also saved lives of your teammates. Your unwavering gallantry and devotion to duty are an example for all of us to follow."
It was the second Silver Star awarded to Villegas, currently the only active-duty two-time recipient in the Air Force. Villegas is assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field who presently works as a recruiting liaison for the 369th Air Force Recruiting Group at JBSA-Lackland.
Young is assigned to the 342nd Training Squadron at JBSA-Lackland as an instructor in the initial course of entry for combat control and special operations weather. The 342nd TRS is home to all Air Force Battlefield Airman entry-level training for pararescue, combat control, special operations weather, and tactical air control party.
Both recipients were humbled and honored by the award.
"I was surprised," Young said. "It was submitted as a Bronze Star with Valor and after statements from some of my team members, different boards recommended an upgrade to Silver Star. It's an honor."
Villegas, a 16-year veteran with eight deployments, used "surreal and shock" to describe his reaction.
"It's surreal," he said. "The first one (in 2011) you don't even expect - that in itself is a shock. To receive two - that's even more incredible. For me to be awarded a second one is even more of a shock."
Both men received their awards for gallantry in action during separate military operations near Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Villegas' citation said he risked his life from Feb. 6-24, 2011 during nonstop enemy engagements. 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.
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 that 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.
"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.
Young compared the award upgrade to "the kind of stuff you see in movies and TV."
"You never really see yourself in that position," he said. "The training we get is so good, so precise and key in building our skills.
"This is a tribute to my supervisors, the first controllers I met and the ones who taught me everything I know," Young said.
From May 19-23, 2009, near Helmand Province, Young's citation said he served as the primary combat control joint terminal attack controller assigned to an Army Special Forces team. Young's element was under continuous enemy fire for 94 hours.
Young controlled up to 11 coalition aircraft, and ensured safe and effective fires on enemy positions despite small arms and rocket fire within 10 meters of his position. The mission also destroyed more than $1 billion in black tar opium.
During his remarks, the AFSOC commander cited the humility and training of special operations Airmen.
"Special operations is a community of quiet professionals," Fiel said. "If you ask these men or any one who wears our berets their thoughts about decorations, I think they would all say, 'I was just doing what I was trained to do.'
"The citations detail your amazing acts of heroism and bravery," he said. "Your stories are truly inspiring."