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Air Commandos receive 2017 Cheney Award

Two people holding an award in front of a screen.

U.S. Air Force Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Brenda Cartier, director of operations for Air Force Special Operations Command, and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Mills, 15th Special Operations Squadron MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft commander, hold the 2017 Air Force Cheney Award June 13, 2019, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Mills received the Cheney Award for extraordinary actions performed in support of a humanitarian mission. After Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean Islands in September of 2017, Mills’ skills as an MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft commander proved vital to humanitarian efforts in the area. Mills assisted in the rescue of both island and American citizens and delivery of critical life-saving supplies to those impacted by the hurricane. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lynette M. Rolen)

One award in a box on a desk.

The 2017 Cheney Award sits on a work station July 12, 2019, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The award was presented to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Mills, 15th Special Operations Squadron MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft commander for extraordinary heroism while providing humanitarian relief after Hurricane Maria left a path of devastation in the Caribbean island of Dominica in September 2017. The Cheney Award is an aviation award presented to an Airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with an aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature. The Cheney Award is an aviation award presented in memory of 1st Lt. William H. Cheney, who was killed in an air collision over Foggia, Italy, Jan. 20, 1918. It was established in 1927. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lynette M. Rolen)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --

Two Air Force Special Operations Command Airmen were recognized for receiving the 2017 Cheney Award June 13, 2019, at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

Then Maj. (now Lt. Col.) Matthew Mills and Master Sgt. Michael Wilson displayed extraordinary heroism while providing humanitarian relief after Hurricane Maria left a path of devastation in the Caribbean island of Dominica in September 2017.

Mills served as an MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft commander and Wilson served as the aircraft loadmaster. Both were assigned to the 15th Special Operations Squadron at the time of the actions.  

The Cheney Award is an aviation award presented to an Airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with an aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature.

“Major Mills and Sergeant Wilson’s inspired leadership was instrumental to the successful execution of a critical humanitarian assistance mission following the devastating Hurricane Maria,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “After Major Mills safely landed on a completely blacked-out runway, Sergeant Wilson began unloading the aircraft delivering 20,000 pounds of critical food, water and medical supplies. In this effort, Major Mills and Sergeant Wilson overcame marginal weather, austere airfield conditions, and working at maximum duty-day limits to complete the upload and rescue of an ambulatory patient as well as 18 other American citizens who were trapped, injured and needed rescuing from the badly damaged island of Dominica.”

Upon learning about the severe damage caused by Hurricane Maria, Mills and Wilson began preparing to deploy within 48 hours.

On Sept. 22, 2017, Mills and Wilson were notified they would be responding to the disaster.

“Maj. Mills and Master Sgt. Wilson showed to the aircraft with little information about follow on missions,” said Lt. Col. William Compton, 15th Special Operations Squadron commander. “They were given minimal information except to take critical supplies to their intermediate staging base in the Caribbean and follow on missions would be directed at a later time. With minimal time, their crews quickly planned the departure and moved the aircraft forward.”

Prior to Hurricane Maria, the island was already ravaged by a previous hurricane, leaving the amount of critical supplies low for both locals on the island and American citizens.

Once Mills and Wilson landed at the intermediate staging base in Barbados, they immediately responded to an ambulatory American citizen in desperate need of rescuing and medical care.

“Their crews were the only aircraft capable of rescuing the American citizen from Dominica,” said Compton. “The hurricane had badly damaged all airports, which were subsequently closed, requiring a special operations platform for the rescue. To complicate matters, the weather was not perfect with ceilings down to minimums, making the MC-130H Combat Talon II the perfect platform to exfiltrate the badly injured citizen.”

While conducting the rescue, the team delivered life-saving supplies to other stranded persons.

After the rescue, the crew prepared to return to the intermediate staging base. The return mission quickly became complicated as the weather worsened.

“Upon arriving in to the local area, the weather was as bad as forecasted,” said Compton. “Maj. Mills successfully flew the aircraft down to minimums, identified the completely blacked-out runway, on night vision goggles, in less than 15 seconds and maneuvered the aircraft to successful landing with no outside support from air traffic control. The crew proceeded in-bound with no other information except the on-board cockpit displays.”

After the successful landing, Wilson began unloading the aircraft, delivering thousands of pounds of critical supplies to citizens.

Wilson also uploaded the ambulatory patient and other American citizens in need of rescue.

“Receiving the Cheney Award is absolutely an honor,” said Wilson. “It’s certainly not something I thought we would be getting for the work we did down there. Seeing the impact of Hurricane Maria was truly humbling and not something I’ll ever forget. I owe the success of the mission that night to the entire crew and I consider myself very lucky to even have be chosen for it.”

The entire crew consisted of the following members:

Copilot: Capt. Justin White

Navigator: Maj. Garrett Bridges

Electronic Warfare Officer: Capt. Joseph Madel

Flight Engineer: Master Sgt. Michael Naas

Loadmaster: Staff Sgt. John Hashman

“I am extremely honored to win the award, but it was an entire crew effort,” said Mills. “Everyone on the crew performed up to the Talon Standard. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew to help make the mission a success.”

Compton praised the team for their success.

“The performance displayed during this dynamic and complex humanitarian mission reflects the finest qualities of the valor, extreme fortitude and self-sacrifice in the realm of humanitarian assistance to those in need,” said Compton. “It flawlessly demonstrates without a doubt that Maj. Mills and Master Sgt. Wilson epitomize the Air Force’s core values and justifiably deserve the honor and selection for the 2017 Cheney Award.”