Reserve Citizen Airmen receive rare honor for saving German citizens
By Tech. Sgt. Lindsey Maurice
/ Published April 10, 2018
In July, Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, took part in a daring rescue of two German citizens whose vessel caught fire about 500 nautical miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In January, Col. Kurt Matthews, 920th RQW commander, and a contingent of six Reserve Citizen Airmen traveled to Germany to accept a prestigious award from the German government on behalf of the 80 unit members who took part in the rescue.
For the first time in 20 years, the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service awarded the Medal of Honor on Ribbon for Rescue Missions at Sea in Gold in a special ceremony to the 920th Rescue Wing Jan. 26, at the German Martime Museum in Hamburg.
“The Medal in Gold has been awarded only five times since 1955,” said Gerhard Harder, chairman of the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service. “This award reflects all the courage, commitment, compassion, dedication and professionalism that is necessary to make a sea rescue that is 800 kilometers from the coast possible. I feel greatly honored to award the Medal of Honor on Ribbon for Rescue Missions at Sea in Gold to the 920th Rescue Wing.”
“It is an honor to be here today and represent the amazing men and women of the 920th Rescue Wing,” said Matthews. “The lengths our Reserve Citizen Airmen went through to save these men is incredible and I am extremely proud of them.
“The specific capability of the 920th RQW’s Guardian Angel Airmen, combined with its air refueling and extended-range airpower make it uniquely able to accomplish the mission where few others in the world can.”
Matthews noted the unit was not facing the most ideal circumstances when it received the call for help that morning. The two HC-130s required to transport the Guardian Angel team and refuel the helicopters were broken and the helicopter crews were on crew rest.
However, the team pulled together and within two hours the maintenance crews fixed and launched the first HC-130 carrying the Guardian Angel team and their equipment. Two hours later, the helicopters headed to the scene, while the maintenance crews fixed the last HC-130.
Around this same time, the Guardian Angel team parachuted into the open water out of the back of the HC-130, followed by their zodiac inflatable boat and medical equipment. After reaching the survivors, they provided urgent medical care and transported them to a nearby freighter whose crew volunteered to help. Under the cover of darkness, the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter teams arrived and their crews hoisted the men into the aircraft bound for the Orlando Regional Medical Center. The survivors spent roughly two weeks in the hospital before returning to Germany.
“I would like to express my heartfelt thank you to my Guardian Angels for rescuing me,” said Karl Meer Jr., the son who was severely injured in the accident. “With my injuries and without water, I don’t think I would have lived another day. I immediately felt so safe, because they knew exactly what they were doing and stayed calm.”
The father and son were able to personally thank some of their rescuers while undergoing care at the Orlando hospital and some additional 920th RQW team members at the ceremony. It was a reunion that touched more than just the rescuers and rescuees.
“This is an awe-inspiring German-American story that unfolded where we didn’t expect it,” said Consul General Richard T. Yoneoka, the U.S. Ambassador’s representative to the German states of Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Bremen, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. “It showcases efficient transatlantic communication channels, the technical material capabilities of the U.S. Air Force and the determination of highly-skilled and superbly-trained individuals to get the job done at great personal risk.”
“To me, today’s event is much more than a festive awards ceremony that honors brave men and women who stood ready when called upon to engage in a rescue mission at sea,” he continued. “To me, above all, this extraordinary rescue story is about a human act of kindness, maybe the most noble, saving another’s life, two lives in fact. True to the motto of the 920th Rescue Wing, ‘These things, we do, that others may live,’ this rescue story is the most meaningful story about German-American relations that I can imagine.”
As the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s sole combat-search-and-rescue wing, the 920th Rescue Wing’s mission is to rescue and recover personnel anytime, anywhere, with combat-ready Citizen Airmen.
(Maurice is assigned to the 920th Rescue Wing public affairs office)