Happy veterans day from a veteran

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mark Wennell
  • 56th Security Forces Squadron
This will be a different Veterans Day for me this year.

Last year I spent Veterans Day as part of an Air Force provincial reconstruction team in Qalat, Afghanistan, doing an in-lieu-of mission. I guess I never considered myself or members of my generation as veterans. That is a pretty lofty title that conjures up visions of someone else, older, maybe Army or Marines. This year I will be thinking of Airmen only.

The first is Staff Sgt. Laura Corona, 56th Services Squadron, later STEP promoted to technical sergeant and deployed from Luke. She and her crew turned a rat-infested chow hall into a dining facility. I still don't know how they did it. But that's not all she did. My Senior Airman Phil King was gunning an M-240b for a PRT convoy when they were hit by a mortar barrage and ground assault. Phil was laughing as he told me how Sergeant Corona was leaning out of the Hummer firing her rifle with one hand and handing him machine gun ammo with the other. Her troop, Senior Airman Hughie Harris was a magician with a barbecue. He had to be evacuated after a 600 kg vehicle-borne IED went off next to his Hummer. After that, he couldn't concentrate; everybody missed those ribs.

I will also think of a group of Airmen known as civil engineers. These guys came in teams -- one technical sergeant, lieutenant and a captain -- and deployed for a year instead of six months. These guys would build schools, district centers and police checkpoints. They got shot at so much we put targets from the range on their doors. I'd like to mention the Airman who was originally from bio-environmental who volunteered to be a driver and was ordered by the colonel not to go on any more convoys after he had his fifth Hummer blown out from under him.

Then there were the three Airmen that meant the most to me outside of my team. The medics, Tech. Sgt. David Qarnstrom from Scott Air Force Base, Ill.; Tech. Sgt. Mike Ball from Pope AFB, N.C.; and Capt. Jackie King. Sergeant Ball braved intense enemy fire to go to the aid of 12 Afghan soldiers who had received wounds from small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. He saved 11, and when I talked to him later he was beating himself up on how he wished he could have saved the twelfth guy. Sergeant Qarnstrom looked like the last person the Air Force would send to war; he just looked out of place, but on the inside he was iron. When en route from Kandahar, a PRT convoy was hit by a suicide VBIED. It was bad. Broken and badly burned soldiers, grown men, falling to their knees crying and screaming. There was Sergeant Q calmly cutting off the uniform of an army specialist whose face was burned off while telling him he was going to be all right and would be with his wife and kids soon. There wasn't anything to worry about.

Then there was Captain King, another Luke alumnus. She had been blown up, shot at and treated badly by Taliban who kept threatening her students, but she never lost her sense of humor. We were caught in a bad ambush and she handed me more than 21 grenades and 16 magazines which I went through. She looked at me and deadpanned, "Sergeant Wenell, I think they know I'm riding with you guys."

The last people I will mention are my brothers in security forces, Staff Sgt. Jay Kimberling and Staff Sgt. Phil King. Sergeant Kimberling is a hypochondriac who would tell me he had diagnosed himself with cancer on WebMD. But, he was fearless and defended our convoy's flank. We were the only three Americans with 35 Afghan police when we drove into an Al Qaeda base camp filled with about 150 terrorists and they were all shooting at me. Jay broke their initial attack. He got up on a wall and started shooting. The Afghan National Police got online with him and soon the enemy was killed. Jay got a Bronze Star with Valor. I am proud to have nominated him for the Silver Star, but was told he didn't qualify. Speaking as someone who is alive today because of his actions, I think he did.

Sergeant King is a loud-mouthed California kid who thought he was perfect in everything he did. So much so that you might think he cared about only himself. But, well after we extricated ourselves from that Al Qaeda firefight, Sergeant King did something that made me scratch my head. He went back into the kill zone and started to pull out Afghan machine gunners, actions for which he would receive a Bronze Star with Valor. Until Sergeant King could get all the troops out, we would not leave despite terrorists attempting to surround us.

This brings me to the last Airman I will remember on Veterans Day.

When we called the joint terminal attack controller at the forward operating base, the nearest asset was a Dutch F-16 over Bagram, and we were in southern Afghanistan. I don't know how fast he was flying, but he got to us quick. For all you F-16 drivers out there, thank you! You cannot imagine what seeing that aircraft flying over you means; it means you get to live. Happy Veterans Day from a veteran.