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Uncommon valor, uncommon award

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Four Marines from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 were awarded the Individual Action Air Medals with the combat distinguishing device, Dec. 16, for heroic actions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Capt. Thomas M. Keech, the mission pilot, Capt. Matthew A. Cave, co-pilot, Sgt. Justin K. Bartfield-Smith, aerial gunner and observer, and Cpl. John M. Cederholm, crew chief, were awarded the Air Medal for actions during a priority re-supply mission in support of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, also known as Geronimo, June 12.

According to the summary of action, the mission took place in the Sangin River Valley, Afghanistan, after ground assets were unable to provide the necessary supplies to Geronimo due to many improvised explosive devices in the area.

Marines on the ground were sustaining heavy casualties and had already required several medical evacuations as well as escort air coverage. One of the escort AH-1W Cobras supporting Geronimo earlier that day had sustained damage from enemy forces to one of its main rotor blades.

Despite the danger, when VMM-264 got the call for help they were ready to answer. Keech, Cave, Bartfield-Smith and Cederholm, the aircrew of an MV-22B Osprey with VMM-264 prepared a plan of action to move supplies to the Marines in the fight.

After receiving intelligence that enemy forces were near the landing zone, the crew mounted a weapon system to the aircraft before launching on their mission.

“Intelligence painted a good picture, but we were flying into an unfamiliar place marked with smoke,” Keech said. “We weren’t sure what to expect.”

During their flight to pick up supplies, the crew test fired their ramp mounted weapon system.

As they neared their objective, the crew had to ensure their arrival wouldn’t compete with friendly escort aircraft that were directly overhead the landing zone, so they could integrate their aircraft into the objective area, Keech said.

As they hit the ground, the Marines received fire from insurgents hidden in the tree-line bordering the landing zone. Immediately, ground forces and aircraft overhead began to repel the enemy attack while the crew unloaded supplies.

As the unloading progressed, enemy fire increased, forcing the crew to immediately lift off. Before leaving the landing zone, they engaged the enemy with the ramp mounted weapon system.

This marked the first time an MV-22B had ever engaged enemy forces in Afghanistan.

“This was a humbling experience,” Cave commented. “You always hear of the ‘glory’ of battle, but it’s scary. You do your job and leave, so this medal is for those Marines on the ground.”

Other members of the crew felt the same about their role in the successful re-supply mission that day.

“I feel honored to receive this award, but any Marine in our unit would have done the same thing — we just happened to be on duty that day,” Bartfield-Smith said. “Everything we do is to support the ground troops.”

Due to the actions and adaptation of the air-crew that day, the Marines of 1st Bn., 5th Marine Regiment, were able to get their much needed supplies and the Osprey and crew returned unharmed.

Article by Cpl. Abigail Brown, Marine Corps Air Station New River