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By Gunnery Sgt. Donald E. Preston, USMC
Special to American Forces Press Service
LONDON, March 23, 2007 - A U.S. Marine appeared before Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace March 21 to receive the United Kingdom's Distinguished Flying Cross for saving lives and in recognition for his bravery during combat operations in Iraq.
Marine Maj. William D. Chesarek Jr., is the first U.S. servicemember to be so honored since World War II.
Assigned as an exchange officer with the Royal Air Force's 847th Naval Air Squadron, Commando Helicopter Force, based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, England, the U.S. Marine flew the RAF's Lynx Mk7 helicopter -- the aircraft he used to dodge insurgent's bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
Through flight school training at Pensacola, Fla., and Corpus Christi, Texas, he mastered the Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter -- a two-seater armed with Hellfire, Sidewinder and Sidearm missiles.
When he joined the RAF squadron in 2005, he traded in the Super Cobra for the Lynx.
"It's a very agile aircraft," said Chesareck, whose call sign is "Punchy." "Its maneuverability is significantly enhanced, compared to a Cobra. It's like comparing a Mustang to a Porsche. They're both great, but different." Flying the evening of June 10, 2006, Chesarek was providing radio communication relay for British ground troops conducting a company-sized search operation near Amarah, Iraq. Listening to radio transmissions, he overheard that a vehicle involved in the operation had became disabled and a crowd of insurgents was firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades at the company.
According to his award citation, "Chesarek elected to fly low over the area in an attempt to distract the crowd and if possible, to engage the insurgents." Because the crowd was so close to the ground troops, instead of engaging his machine gun, he "opted instead to provide bold, harassing, very low level flight over the area in an attempt to disperse the crowd."
However, radio traffic from the ground told Chesarek he was now the target and was drawing small-arms fire, and that a rocket-propelled grenade had just passed the rear of his aircraft.
This was not his first time in combat. He and his wife, Christine, a U.S. Navy nurse, had served simultaneously in Operation Iraqi Freedom during the initial stages. But now in a different aircraft, with a different purpose, things were different. Last month, Chesarek's RAF commander and his crew had been shot down flying in the same type of aircraft.
"I had been in a couple of situations with troops in contact before," the 32-year-old Chesarek said. "I had a good idea of the kind of potential danger involved, but now I was listening to the individual commander on the ground. Someone was injured; what can we do?"
Using his view from above, Chesarek applied his training as an airborne forward air controller to coordinate, designate and control fixed-wing assets in conducting close air support, resulting in the dispersing the insurgents.
Chesarek made the unconventional move - what's considered an "implied mission" in military parlance -- to conduct a medical evacuation with the Lynx to help a British soldier with a life-threatening head injury. As the only aircraft available to assist, he landed the Lynx near the company in distress as his door gunner and another crew member jumped out.
"My door gunner jumped out and picked up the injured soldier and put him in the helicopter," Chesarek said. "My other crew member had to stay, or we would have been overweight to fly."
Now, nine months later, Chesarek's name echoed throughout the ballroom of Buckingham Palace as he was called before the queen to be recognized and credited for "having a pivotal role in ensuring the rapid evacuation of (a) badly injured soldier and the safe extraction of the Company."
Wearing his ceremonial uniform, Chesarek stood before the queen and hundreds in attendance, including his parents, his wife and their 2-year-old son, William. After Chesarek bowed, the custom when in front of the queen, the British monarch placed her kingdom's level-three award for gallantry in the air while on active operation against the enemy on his chest.
Chesarek reflected on his lost comrades and brothers in arms.
"I am greatly honored and would like to accept this prestigious award for 847 NAS in memory of Lt. Cmdr. Darren Chapman (Royal Navy), Capt. David Dobson (Army Air Corps), and Marine Paul Collins (Royal Marines), who were killed in action over Basrah in May 2006," Chesarek said. "The awarded actions were only possible due to the combined effort of my combat crew; Lt. David Williams (Royal Navy) and Lance Cpl. Max Carter (Royal Marines). My greatest sense of achievement that day is in knowing the ground troops all made it home."