For years the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy divided military aviation responsibilities between them, and after a series of antecedents and organizational changes, the National Security Act of 1947 created a separate branch entirely devoted to aviation: the United States Air Force. The US Air Force was officially established on September 18, 1947, having shown both its effectiveness and the need for it to be its own entity throughout World War II.
In the Air Force, badges are used as signifiers of various aeronautical ratings, special skills, and career field qualifications; they’re also used as identifiers for personnel working certain assignments. Most badges are awarded according to three ratings: Basic, Senior, and Command/Master. The Air Force also has the distinction of being the most restrictive branch of the military when it comes to allowing their badges to be displayed on uniforms from other branches: for the most part, Air Force badges may only be worn on Air Force uniforms. And while there are a number of badges, there are a few that stand out as representations of skill sets or achievements the general public doesn’t automatically consider or may not wholly understand.
Aeronautical Rating Badge: Remotely Piloted Aircraft
U.S. Air Force aeronautical rating badges are achieved by participating in “regular and frequent flight” and are commonly referred to as “wings.” It was 1912 when the first aviator rating was awarded to a member of the Army Air Force, back when the Air Force itself had yet to be established. Over the years, these ratings have grown to span seven categories and 21 ratings, and the newest was just added on December 13, 2010: Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPA. An RPA pilot is awarded their wings by an Air Combat Command Commander, a delegated wing commander, or an Air Force Reserve Command Commander. So what exactly is an RPA?
RPA pilots have actually been in the news quite a bit recently; they’re commonly known as drone operators. RPAs are aircrafts that don’t have human pilots and are subject to civil regulation under the International Civil Aviation Organization. The U.S. Air Force classifies RPAs according to tiers: Tier N/A covers small and micro unmanned aerial systems (UAS) such as the Wasp Block III; Tier I covers low altitude-capable RPAs with lengthy endurance such as the Gnat 750; Tier II covers medium altitude, long-endurance, or MALE, RPAs such as the Predator and MQ-9 Reaper; Tier II+ covers high altitude, long-endurance, or HALE, UASs that are complementary to Tier III aircraft, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk; Tier III- covers high altitude, long-endurance, low-observable UASs that are complementary to Tier II+ aircraft, such as the RQ-170 Sentinel. The term UAS was chosen by the Department of Defense to replace UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – as a way to emphasize that there are more elements involved than just the vehicle itself.
Contrary to popular belief there are also multiple kinds of RPAs. There are six categories used to classify an RPA: target and decoy, reconnaissance, combat, logistics, research and development, and civil and commercial. So although the RPAs most often covered on the news are those used for combat, there are quite a few other uses, including gathering intelligence and search and rescue.
Of course, combat is vitally important. A number of senior leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been taken out with drone strikes including Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the man responsible not only for countless acts of terrorism in Pakistan but also known to have made detailed attempts to carry out attacks on U.S. soil. Thousands of terrorists have been killed with drones, and many senior members of the military and a number of government officials see drones as the future of warfare. With drones, combat can be carried out from halfway around the world, and the operator is kept physically safe throughout. The RPA pilot badge may be the newest of the aeronautical rating badges but it also promises to be perhaps the fastest-growing and potentially the most historically significant.
Outstanding Airman Badge
This badge starts with a ribbon. The ribbon was created on February 21, 1968, with the first one being awarded in 1970; it’s the highest personal ribbon award in the U.S. Air Force. Each year the Outstanding Airman of the Year ribbon is awarded to U.S. Air Force members who are nominated by their Major Command, Field Operating Agency, or Direct Reporting Unit. What are they being nominated for? The Outstanding Airman of the Year program, which recognizes 12 airmen annually for their exemplary service. Nominees compete in one of three categories: Airman, Non-Commissioned Officer, or Senior Non-Commissioned Officer. Although nominations are based on the previous year’s performance, nominees must undergo serious scrutiny of their entire lives and careers because, if they were to win, they’d be serving as the most outstanding members of the Air Force for one year, a representation of great importance. Airmen who are selected as one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year are given an Outstanding Airman badge, which they’re allowed to wear for one year, and are also awarded the ribbon along with a bronze service star. Nominees are awarded the ribbon with no star. Airmen with subsequent awards in this category are awarded oak leaf clusters.
The airmen who become one of the 12 to wear the Outstanding Airman Badge each year display uncommon bravery and/or amazing performance. In 1994, one of the twelve was Technical Sergeant Timothy Wilkinson, who was also a recipient of the Air Force Cross. Wilkinson wore the badge after his impressive actions during Operation RESTORE HOPE on October 3rd and 4th, 1993, in Mogadishu. In that time frame, a helicopter was shot down with an RPG, and Wilkinson immediately responded, fast-roping into the crash site as part of the rescue effort. He immediately came under heavy enemy fire, but he persisted, taking fire from small arms and grenades while he cleared debris and began administering first aid to the crash survivors. Entirely on his own, he left cover not once but three times to find necessary medical equipment and provide emergency medical care to Ranger casualties. With utter disregard for his own safety, Wilkinson crossed a wide-open 45-meter area in order to administer aid to gravely wounded American soldiers. This all took place in what was to become known as the Battle of Mogadishu and was, at the time, the longest sustained firefight in U.S. military history since Vietnam. Wilkinson’s heroism wasn’t limited to his actions on the ground, either; he also carried out what was described as “superb airmanship.” He was and is the epitome of everything an Outstanding Airman Badge recipient should be.
Occupational Badges, Operations Career Group: Pararescueman
Pararescuemen, also known as PJs, are a part of the United States Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and Air Combat Command (ACC). They’re operatives tasked with both the rescue and medical treatment of personnel in a variety of situations; today those scenarios are often combat-related. PJ’s are frequently attached to other SOF (Special Operations Forces) teams and are a little-known part of the SOF community. As a symbol of their operator status they wear maroon berets which are meant to symbolize the blood shed by other PJs as well as their willingness to shed their own blood.
USAF Pararescue became active in March of 1946, but air rescue took place throughout World War II and it was Captain John “Blackie” Porter who PJ’s credit with the birth of pararescue. The captain’s unit was known as Blackie’s Gang, and their first major mission involved the rescue of 20 people who had been forced to bail out of a crippled C-46 into a horrifically dangerous area. One of those 20 rescued was a CBS reporter by the name of Eric Sevareid who said of his PJ rescuers “Gallant is a precious word: they deserve it.”
In 2002, a PJ by the name of Jason Cunningham gave everything he had to save his brothers in combat. It was March 4, 2002, and the U.S. military was approximately 48 hours into Operation Anaconda. A team of Navy SEALs was flying across the treacherous Shah-e-Kot valley heading for the top of Takur Ghar, a location that would give them a fantastic viewpoint and excellent strategic positioning. As an attempt was made to land their helicopter, enemy combatants hidden in the snow-covered mountains unleashed the full fury of machine gun fire and RPGs on the men, severing the helicopter’s hydraulic lines. The pilot pulled out without inserting the SEAL team, but the unavoidable jerking motion resulted in one of the operators, Petty Officer First Class (SEAL) Neil Roberts, to fall to the earth below. A QRF was immediately dispatched to rescue Roberts, and among them was Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, who was serving as the medic.
When Cunningham and his team reached the mountain, the enemy was waiting. An RPG tore into their helicopter, forcing them to land, and the combination of the explosion and crash landing resulted in numerous injuries. The PJs had gone in to rescue a man and had ended up in need of rescue themselves, and Cunningham was going to see to it his fellow service members received the medical treatment they needed, even at his own expense. Those who weren’t injured began to fight back, but there were 10 men in need of emergency care, and only Cunningham and one other medic to administer aid. Despite the constant rain of bullets all around him, Cunningham ran directly through the line of fire three times, moving wounded men from the blazing helicopter to a safer area for treatment. His own injuries were severe, and yet he continued to treat the fallen.
After Cunningham was shot through the small of his back, his own injuries began to cripple him; still, he refused to quit. But as blood loss took its toll over the course of hours, the time came when he was no longer able to move. Unable to physically offer assistance, he gave verbal directions to the others, instructing them in how to help the injured. And then, seven hours after he was shot, he stopped breathing. The others present administered CPR, fighting for 30 minutes to save him, but at 8pm on March 4, 2002, Jason Cunningham died in the mountains of Afghanistan. He was the first PJ to be killed in combat since Vietnam.
Pararescuemen run into the battle when it’s at its worst. They show a level of courage in the face of combat not many can match, and all that bravery is represented by the Pararescueman Badge. Their motto is “These things we do, that others may live” and as PJ’s like Jason Cunningham prove, they both live and die according to those words.
Air Force badges aren’t just symbols of jobs, they’re symbols of the airman’s calling to serve. Whether they’re PJs, RPA pilots, or intelligence officers, members of the US Air Force play a vital role protecting our borders both from within and without. One of their recruiting slogans was “We do the impossible every day,” and when it comes to the courageous feats of airmen, no words could be truer. The Air Force is truly a force to be reckoned with, and their badges should always be worn with pride.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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