By Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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Master Sgt. Benjamin (right), a combat controller with the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, is awarded the Bronze Star Medal during a ceremony at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., June 6, 2015. The medal, presented by Col. Robert Hamm, commander of the 123rd Operations Group, was awarded for meritorious service while conducting operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A combat controller from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron was awarded the Bronze Star Medal here June 6 for meritorious service while deployed to Southwest Asia and Northwest Africa, where he engaged enemy forces and deterred their advances.

Master Sgt. Benjamin was instrumental in the execution of nine missions across five countries and seven landing zones, conducting nine forward-area refueling point surveys and one drop-zone certification in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, according to the award citation.

Benjamin supervised a 53-man joint special operations team during the night infiltration and assessment of a strategic airfield. Working with Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance operators, Benjamin was able to maintain tactical control of three separate maneuver elements on the ground while simultaneously conducting pavement evaluations for two primary runways on the airfield.

Additionally, he supervised a 12-man joint special operations team tasked with an airfield security assessment, enabling partner nation forces to maintain momentum and resupply forces in their fight against Al Qaeda.

Finally, Benjamin delivered crucial survey results to two Special Forces teams conducting strategic site assessments, equipping commanders with support to re-open strategic infrastructure.

The Bronze Star Medal was authorized by executive order on Feb. 4, 1944, and is awarded to service members who have distinguished themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.

By Master Sgt. Phil Speck, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office

150314-Z-ZU385-816KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A combat controller from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron was awarded the Bronze Star Medal in a ceremony here March 14 for meritorious service while deployed to Afghanistan.

Senior Airman Robert Willging served with a combined joint special operations task force in Afghanistan from June 1 to Nov. 1, 2014 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. During that deployment, Willging assisted in the planning and execution of more than 100 combat patrols and served with lead maneuver elements while coordinating aerial weapons teams, close air support and medical evacuation operations.

Willging personally controlled more than 120 aircraft during multiple day operations, to include combined operations with Afghan National Army Commandos in which he controlled, de-conflicted and engaged with 24 aircraft to ensure the safety of all ground elements, according to the award citation.

“Airman Willging’s utilization and control of aerial weapons teams, close air support, and medical evacuation platforms was second to none, and aided in the timely extraction of multiple wounded Afghan National Security Forces and (U.S. Special Operations Forces),” the citation said.

The Bronze Star Medal was authorized by executive order on Feb. 4, 1944, and is awarded to service members who have distinguished themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.

Story by Cpl. Alexander Mitchell, II Marine Expeditionary Force

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Two Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron off load 50 cc mini bikes to stage on a runway at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., April 28, 2015, prior to a static line jump and Jump Clearing Team mission from a KC-130J Super Hercules assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 during exercise Emerald Warrior 2015. The mini bikes are used to patrol the air strip before the plane lands to ensure there is no debris or hostile forces near the landing zone. Emerald Warrior is a joint exercise led by Air Force Special Operations Command that provides pre-deployment training for U.S. and partner nation special operations forces and interagency elements. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alexander Mitchell)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Marines with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing transported a team of 20 Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron and Chilean Air Commandos aboard a KC-130J Super Hercules during Emerald Warrior 2015 here April 28.

Working with VMGR-252, the team landed and prepositioned two 50cc mini bikes at an airfield before later taking off again and jumping out to parachute down to the airfield to conduct their planned Jump Clearing Team mission.

“Flying with Americans and the unit helps us toward the training that we do out here,” said Rudy, a team leader with the Chilean Air Commandos. “Working together helps with future missions in a combat area.”

The Marines aboard the Hercules set up static lines and locked down the bikes aboard the aircraft. The 123rd STS and Chilean jump masters worked side by side with Marine crew masters during jumps to ensure safety, speed and proper technique.

“We run checklists before the jumps to ensure quick and safe executions,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Arnold Sosa, a crew master with VMGR-252. “Once we secure the inside of the plane and open up the back ramp, the jump master takes charge of his jumpers while I make wind and time calls prior to the jump.”

Once the jump is complete the crew masters relay information to the pilots.

“I notify the pilots when the first jumper goes as well as the last jumper,” Sosa said. “After that, we give them a total jumper count and total chute count to ensure a safe jump.”

The partnership between the different services and partner nations during training exercises like Emerald Warrior 2015 further enhances their relationships.

“It is a great partnership with great forces,” Rudy said. “Training together and completing missions during Emerald Warrior help toward our commando unit in the future. It brings our guys and American forces together in a strong bond.”

Emerald Warrior is a joint exercise led by Air Force Special Operations Command that provides pre-deployment training for U.S. and partner nation special operations forces and interagency elements. The annual exercise is the Department of Defense’s only irregular warfare exercise.

Story by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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Col. Matthew Davidson (left), commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, presents Staff Sgt. Nicholas P. Jewell, a combat controller in the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, with the Bronze Star Medal during a ceremony Feb. 7, 2015, at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky. Jewell earned the award for meritorious achievement while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2014. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard)

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A combat controller from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron was awarded the Bronze Star Medal here Feb. 7 for meritorious service while deployed to Afghanistan, where he engaged enemy forces and deterred their advances.

Staff Sgt. Nicholas P. Jewell served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller assigned to an Army Special Forces team from Aug. 12, 2014, to Nov. 10, 2014, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Jewell was tasked to provide tactical advice and assistance to Afghan Army Commando teams performing combat operations in northeastern Afghanistan when he and his team came under small-arms fire.

As rounds impacted within feet of his position, Jewell ran to cover behind a ridgeline and immediately returned fire while simultaneously relaying enemy locations to aircraft overhead, according to the award citation. He then controlled an immediate air-to-ground engagement with high explosives from an AH-64 attack helicopter, resulting in multiple enemies killed in action.

“So obviously he found himself in a bad spot,” said Col. Matthew Davidson, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, who officiated the award ceremony and presented the medal to Jewell. “He went out and saved his teammates and saved the mission. It’s folks like him that we want to emulate.”

Jewell also was recognized for his actions during a clearing operation when his element came under direct small-arms fire. He immediately coordinated efforts between ground signals intelligence forces and overhead aircraft to locate and engage the enemy fighting location with devastating effects.

“What we have asked Nick to do, and his teammates to do — in fact what we ask a lot of Americans out there to do for us sometimes — they have extraordinary responses to that,” Davidson said. “Like (Jewell) did on numerous occasions.”

The Bronze Star Medal was authorized by executive order on Feb. 4, 1944, and is awarded to service members who have distinguished themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.

Story by Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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Master Sgt. Joey Youdell, a pararescueman in the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, created a “unit pride” ceiling tile with his daughters, Olivia (left) and Juliet. The hand-painted tile is one of several that have been installed in The Winner’s Circle recreation center at the Kentucky Air Guard Base in Louisville, Ky. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Maj. Dale Greer)

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The daughters of a Kentucky Air National Guardsman have put their artistic talents to use by helping showcase unit pride.

Master Sgt. Joey Youdell and his daughters, Olivia and Juliet, painted a ceiling tile depicting the heraldry of his unit, the Louisville-based 123rd Special Tactics Squadron.

The tile was then installed in the ceiling of The Winner’s Circle, a Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center here. It joins ceiling tiles from other subordinate units assigned to the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing.

“Our leadership wanted to create something that would represent the spirit of the Special Tactics Squadron, and I thought it would be a great project to do with my daughters,” said Youdell, a pararescueman who has deployed overseas multiple times.

Youdell’s daughters painted a base coat on the tile, which soaked up a lot of pigment due to its porous nature and multiple perforations, while Youdell worked on the main art.

“The girls did a great job filling in all the holes with paint,” he said. “It took a long time, but we had a lot of fun doing it.”

Daughters help create cieling art to depict 123rd Special Tactics Squadron mission

Master Sgt. Joey Youdell, a pararescueman in the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, installs a custom-painted ceiling tile in the Morale, Welfare and Recreation facility at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 21, 2013. The facility features ceiling tiles depicting the missions of various units on base. Youdell painted the tile with the help of his daughters, Juliet and Olivia. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Maj. Dale Greer)

The unit’s heraldry features a Pegasus surrounded by a life buoy and suspended by a ram-air parachute.

“The parachute is significant to the unit as a primary means of worldwide deployment, indicating that all special tactics squadron operators are airborne qualified,” according to the Pentagon’s Institute of Heraldry.

“The Pegasus symbolizes genius and inspiration and also represents the unit’s amalgamation of the ground and air elements, which is key to the mission.”

The 123rd Special Tactics Squadron is comprised of pararescuemen like Youdell, combat controllers and special operations weathermen.

Pararescuemen are parachute-jump qualified trauma specialists who must maintain emergency medical technician-paramedic credentials throughout their careers. With this medical and rescue expertise, PJs are able to perform life-saving missions in the world’s most remote areas. A PJ’s primary function is personnel recovery specialist, providing emergency medical capabilities in humanitarian and combat environments. PJs deploy in any available manner, including air-land-sea tactics, into restricted environments to authenticate, extract, treat, stabilize and evacuate injured personnel.

Combat controllers are among the most highly trained personnel in the U.S. military. As FAA-certified air traffic controllers, they deploy undetected into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, humanitarian assistance and special reconnaissance.

Special operations weathermen are meteorologists with advanced tactical training to operate in hostile or denied territory. They gather and interpret weather data and provide intelligence from deployed locations while working primarily with Air Force and Army Special Operations Forces.

The unit’s slogan, “Ingenium Superat Vires,” means “Genius Overcomes Strength.”

Story by Master Sgt. Phil Speck, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office

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A member of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron defends a vehicle during training at Zussman Range at Fort Knox, Ky., on Nov. 21, 2013. The Airman and his teammates were practicing insertions, extractions and close-quarters combat in a simulated Afghan village. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

FORT KNOX, Ky.  — A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter comes to a hovering stop above a two-story building in the middle of an Afghan village. With blades rotating above, a Kentucky Air National Guard pararescueman scoots to the edge of the chopper’s open door and grabs a thick rope before sliding 25 feet down to the building’s roof. He’s followed by five teammates who quickly secure the rooftop and scan the village for threats.

The scene may sound like a sequence from a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s just another day at the “office” for members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron. They executed the mission in November as part of regular combat training at Fort Knox’s Zussman Urban Training Center.

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Members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron climb a rope ladder onto a Kentucky Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk during training at Zussman Range at Fort Knox, Ky., on Nov. 21, 2013. The Airmen were practicing insertions, extractions and close-quarters combat in a simulated Afghan village. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

The center offers realistic combat environments that simulate what troops can expect to find Afghanistan, according to Staff Sgt. Jeff G., a Kentucky Air Guard pararescueman whose last name is being withheld because of the sensitive nature of his duties.

“This is as good as it gets for training,” he said.

Pararescuemen and their combat controller colleagues from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron are Special Forces Airmen. The former specialize in medical treatment and personnel recovery, while the latter control air traffic and air strikes. Both maintain a high level of training to be prepared for any mission.

The “fast rope insertion” described above is just one of many skills the men trained for in November. They also trained for fast extraction, in which a helicopter hovers overhead and drops a rope ladder for the operatives to climb up.

“We do this training to keep our skills up, stay proficient, so we can seamlessly integrate with other units,” Staff Sgt. G. said.

While at Zussman, the team also conducted close-quarters battle training. The operatives cordoned and searched buildings for people or high-value targets such as weapons caches, clearing the buildings one room at a time and eliminating threats as needed.

Throughout this process, they were met by actors who portrayed local Afghans, from a local market owner to hostile enemy forces that assaulted them with high-powered paintball guns. STS personnel used modified versions of their real-world weapons to fight back, employing non-lethal paint bullets, or “simunitions,” to return fire.

The Airmen also conducted full-mission-profile training tasks, using the equipment they would take with them overseas for a real-world operation. Among these tools were the Jaws of Life, a powered cutting device used to extract individuals from a downed aircraft or vehicle.

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A member of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron defends his position during training at Zussman Range at Fort Knox, Ky., on Nov. 21, 2013. The Airman and his teammates were practicing insertions, extractions and close-quarters combat in a simulated Afghan village. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

According to Master Sgt. Bryan Hunt, a combat controller for the 123rd STS, the unit does this type of training — which they call Military Operations on Urban Terrain — four times a year. It benefits both newcomers and unit veterans he said.

Each scenario was preceded by a dry run, or a practice walk-through. The Airmen would then execute a full-mission profile with night-vision goggles while taking simulated hostile fire.

“We try to apply everything we learned during a dry run, so when you’re actually being shot at, and you’re hot, your goggles are fogging up, the challenge was keeping your head, staying calm and applying the techniques you’ve learned previously,” Staff Sgt. G. said.

“The training was excellent and beneficial because it mimicked actual combat in Afghanistan. It represents that 360-degree battlefield that we experience in Afghanistan.”

Story by Master Sgt. Phil Speck, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs 

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Senior Master Sergeant Billy Hardin, pararescue superintendent for the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, practices providing medical care to a simulated military working dog while blindfolded to simulate darkness during a training session at Jefferson Community College in Shelbyville, Ky., on Dec. 5, 2013. Hardin is one of 10 Kentucky Air Guard pararescuemen who learned to treat military working dogs during the two-day course. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — Pararescuemen are the Air Force’s jump-qualified trauma specialists. They provide injured troops with emergency medical care in the most austere combat environments.

But what happens when the patient is a dog?

On a recent deployment to an overseas combat theater, one pararescuemen from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron treated twice as many dogs as people.

“There has been a huge rise in the use of dogs on the battlefield, and unfortunately they are getting injured because they are sometimes the first to engage the enemy,” said Senior Master Sergeant Billy Hardin, pararescue superintendent for the 123rd.

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Staff Sgt. David Covel (left), a pararescueman from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, helps administer an intravenous solution to a dog with the help of Thomas Barrett, a civilian paramedic and K9 medic trainer, and Kalee Pasek, a doctor of veterinary medicine and education coordinator for K9 medics at Jefferson Community College in Shelbyville, Ky., Dec. 5, 2013, as part of a two-day training course. Covel is one of 10 Kentucky Air Guard pararescuemen who learned to treat military working dogs during the course. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Phil Speck)

In an effort to enhance their combat veterinary skills, 10 of the unit’s pararescuemen recently completed a two-day training course at Jefferson Community College in Shelbyville, Ky., taught by K9 Medic, a private firm that specializes in medical education for the emergency care of dogs.

Prior to attending the course, the pararescuemen’s only veterinary training was gleaned through personal battlefield experience and by working informally with military dog handlers and civilian veterinarians.

According to Hardin, canines can be a bit more challenging to work with than people.

“The first thing you want to do is muzzle the animal, so you don’t get bit,” he said, explaining that dogs don’t understand you’re trying to help them.

Communications is another problem.

“People can tell you what hurts, but dogs don’t,” he said. “They just kind of look around. So you have pay close attention to them and their movements.”

Injuries on military working dogs, which perform missions like explosives detection, are typically confined to gunshot wounds or blast injuries. The dogs are very agile and good at climbing rocky terrain, almost never twisting an ankle or breaking a leg, Hardin said.

Currently, active duty Air Force Security Forces use dogs, but the Air National Guard does not.

Story by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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Col. Robert Hamm (left), commander of the 123rd Operations Group, presents the guidon of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron to Maj. Sean McLane, the unit’s new commander, during a change-of-command ceremony held at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 24, 2013. The passing of the guidon is a time-honored tradition signifying change of leadership. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard)

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Maj. Sean McLane assumed command of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron during a change-of-command ceremony here Nov. 24.

He replaces Lt. Col. Jeffrey Wilkinson, who now serves as deputy air commander of the squadron’s parent organization, the 123rd Airlift Wing.

McLane began his Air Force career in 1993 as an enlisted tactical air controller before being commissioned as a distinguished graduate of the Air National Guard Academy of Military Science in 2002. He most recently served as director of operations for the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron and brings many years of experience to his new role.

“Having been the lowest enlisted member of the squadron, you get to see how all of the leadership’s decisions affect you,” McLane said during the ceremony. “I don’t want to be disconnected from that Airman. When that extra workload or difficulty comes to him, I want to know how he is affected.

“If I can’t change the outcome of how it affects him, I can explain to him why it has to be that way,” he continued. “What I really want is for people to understand why they are doing what they are doing and how it affects the mission.”

McLane first came to the Kentucky Air National Guard in 1996 when the special tactics unit was a flight of about 24 members. He earned his combat control beret in 1997, maintaining full combat mission-ready status as a traditional Guardsman while attending college and, eventually, teaching high school math, science and history. His military career includes assignments as a special tactics squadron flight commander and weapons and tactics officer.

“I have known Major McLane since he was an NCO, and I had a lot of respect for him then,” said Chief Master Sgt. Tom DeSchane, the squadron’s combat control enlisted manager. “He has vision and he likes to have as much input as he can before he makes decisions. I think that’s what is going to make him a successful commander for the STS.”

Now staffed with more than 80 personnel, the squadron provides a rapidly deployable force to establish positive control of the air-ground interface, battlefield trauma care, terminal attack control, personnel recovery and air/ground meteorological effects forecasting in support of overseas contingency operations and domestic disasters.

“I want people to be proud of the job that they are doing, proud of their squadron and proud to be a member of it,” McLane emphasized. “If they have the proud ownership of their position, they are going to do their job better.”

Mission readiness is another top priority. McLane has deployed numerous times in support of military contingency and combat operations, including Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom; multiple Joint Chiefs of Staff-directed exercises; and civil natural-disaster response operations and state exercises.

“I’m not interested in fighting the last war,” he told the audience. “I’m interested in fighting the next one. I’m not interested in preparing for the last natural disaster we have faced. I am very concerned with being ready to respond to all of them.”

“When you look at the mission of special tactics, our federal and state mission, where they overlap is what we are going to train to and what we are going to be good at. If we do that, we will be ready for the future war and be ready for what the state needs us to do.”

Story by Staff Sgt. Vicky Spesard, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office

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Five combat controllers from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron scaled Mount McKinley near Talkeetna, Alaska, on May 25, 2013, as part of arctic mountaineer training. The 20,237-foot summit is the highest mountain peak in North America. (Photo courtesy 123rd Special Tactics Squadron)

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Five combat controllers from the Kentucky Air National Guard gained valuable extreme-weather experience recently by scaling to the top of Mount McKinley near Talkeetna, Alaska.

Senior Master Sgt. Wes Brooks, Master Sgts. Russ LeMay and Aaron May, and Tech. Sgts. Grant Kinlaw and Harley Bobay of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron reached the summit of North America’s highest mountain May 25 after many weeks of mid-altitude and high-altitude conditioning.

The objective of such extreme training, which involved glacier travel techniques, crevasse rescue operations and avalanche prediction, was to give the Airmen experience they might need during cold-weather, high-altitude military operations, according to Chief Master Sgt. Tom DeSchane, the 123rd’s combat control enlisted manager.

“In preparing for part of their war-time tasking, these guys have to practice their mountaineering skills and land navigation through arctic conditions,” DeSchane said. “Each operator is issued his own skis, snow shoes and all the accoutrements for surviving the elements. Going up Mount McKinley teaches them how to rope-in and traverse the terrain safely with all of the equipment that they have to carry.”

Combat controllers are part of the Air Force Special Operations community and are among the most highly trained personnel in the U.S. military. As certified air traffic controllers, they deploy undetected into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, humanitarian assistance and special reconnaissance.

Planning for the high-altitude training exercise began about a year ago when the five men participated in mountaineering training in the snowy mountains outside Salt Lake City, Utah, with other members of their squadron.

There, the squadron practiced knots, anchors and other rope skills, as well as movement techniques, minimalistic equipment and clothing, and medium-altitude terrain traversing.

“Originally, the idea to climb (McKinley) came from Aaron, who had tried to climb the mountain before with his previous unit,” LeMay said. “His team was unable to reach the summit when they stopped to help rescue another group of climbers who had an accident.”

Accidents on the mountain are common and mostly caused by climbers who are not properly trained or prepared for the change in altitude and the extreme environment.

The Kentucky team took great care in preparing for their climb.

When the five-member team arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, outside Denali National Park and Preserve, they spent the first day with a guide service, familiarizing themselves with their equipment and preparing meals. The team then departed by air taxi to Mount McKinley base camp, where they spent three days engaged in hands-on training to ensure a solid skill foundation.

For the next 13 days the five Airmen and two guides applied all of their skills and techniques to climb the mountain summit, stopping at camps along the way to acclimate, rest and complete training objectives, before making the return trip to base camp.

“Summit day was the hardest part of the climb,” LeMay said. “It took us five to six hours of straight climbing from the last camp we stayed at to reach it. We were the first group of the day to reach the summit so we had about 45 minutes to ourselves to see how beautiful it was. It was the clearest day at the top, so we could see for miles around us. It was amazing.”

Having to make way for other climbing groups, the combat controllers returned to the camp they stayed in the night before to rest for their descent.

“It was tough to go up to the top,” LeMay continued. “Everything about going up and coming down was tough. The cold-weather environment is very unforgiving, and it makes even the smallest tasks very difficult.

“It was the best kind of cold-weather training we could have gotten. Working in such a harsh environment gave us invaluable experience. The climb was amazing, but a lot of hard work.”

Story by Senior Airman Vicky Spesard, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

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Master Sgt. Russ LeMay, a combat controller from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, practices rugby with the Louisville Men’s Rugby Club in Louisville, Ky., on March 18, 2013. LeMay has played for both the U.S. Air Force and Combined Services rugby teams, and hopes to repeat again this year. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman Joshua Horton)

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two yellow goal posts stand quietly in their own zones, one at each end of a glorious field of green marked with bright white lines at 10-meter intervals, waiting for a rugger to ground the ball in the in-goal area for the first five points of the season.

Master Sgt. Russ LeMay, a combat controller from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, has been that player for both the U.S. Air Force and the Combined Services rugby teams in past seasons, and he hopes to be again in the upcoming seasons later this year.

A relatively new player to the sport, LeMay says rugby is his passion and that he was hooked from the start.

“I played football all through high school and never really thought of rugby,” the Kentucky Air Guardsman said. “I had a friend invite me out to play with him for the Louisville Men’s Rugby Club in 2009 and I couldn’t get enough. I loved the speed of the game, the strategy and the team work of all 15 players on the field. It is an amazing sport that keeps you going.”

That camaraderie, competition and love of the game is what compelled LeMay to try out for both of the national teams.

“These are high-level clubs,” LeMay said. “Some of these guys are playing for the best teams in the nation. It’s quite a step up from what normal club rugby is around the United States.”

During his off time from the two teams and in between his duties with the Air Guard, LeMay plays with his Louisville squad and has encouraged other Air Guard members to join him.

“So far, we have five guys from the unit who are playing,” he said. “We meet twice a week for practice, games on Saturday, and we always have a great time.”

Indeed, rugby is a growing sport across the United States. In 2012, the number of active registered players has grown to more than 115,000, according to USA Rugby, the sport’s governing body. The National Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in 2010 ranked rugby as the fastest-growing sport in the nation.

Rugby will also make an appearance at 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio after being absent from the games since 1924.

“Not only is the sport growing here, it has begun to grow more in Kentucky and across parts of the United States,” LeMay said. “ It’s awesome to see.”