Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TOP STORY > >Recipient of Bronze Star honored for Iraq service

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

For his contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom, an Arkansas officer received a Bronze Star at a ceremony Monday afternoon at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Lt. Col. Paul “Rich” Stephenson, a training unit instructor with the 62nd Airlift Squadron, was awarded the medal for performing meritoriously while stationed for a year at Basra, Iraq, a large port city near the Persian Gulf. He served as a senior adviser and commander in efforts to help an Iraqi air force squadron rebuild its capabilities.

Col. Charles K. Hyde, commander of the 314th Airlift Wing, pinned the medal on Stephenson after the medal citation and narrative were read before a crowd of airman, his wife, Linda, and the mayors of Jacksonville, Cabot and Sherwood, who had gathered to witness the proud moment.

Hyde, who had trained some years ago under Stephenson at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, said that his expertise and leadership capabilities made him an ideal choice for the challenging mission.

“The Air Force sent someone over to mentor a nation under siege in a raging war,” Hyde said. “They selected someone who knows how to take care of a nation. He delivered that in spades.”

During his tour of duty, Stephenson, as commander of a 10-person U.S. Air Force team, mentored more than 130 Iraqi officers of the Iraqi Air Force’s 70th Reconnaissance Squadron. Work with the Iraqis encompassed all aspects of flight and intelligence operations, including communication and coordination with Iraqi and Coalition command centers, air craft maintenance and safety, and combat mission tactics. The Iraqi unit had eight planes.

The training provided by Stephenson built the Iraqis’ capabilities for missions at night and in adverse weather. That enabled the squadron to successfully fly 1,300 combat missions that entailed intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the Iraqi military’s effort to wrest the city of Basra from enemy control, Stephenson and his U.S.-Iraqi team suffered intense enemy attacks, but loss of life was minimized as a result of his leadership.

“Stephenson displayed unwavering courage and exceptional judgment while leading his team through over 125 enemy airfield attacks, numbering more than 450 Katyusha rockets,” stated the ceremony narrative. “The well-disciplined, immediate action procedures and accountability he drilled into his team and Iraqi Air Force personnel prevented injury or loss of life during frequent indirect fire attacks.”

Throughout the ceremony, Stephenson stood at attention, somber faced. After the pinning, he relaxed and broke into a smile.

“That was way more whoop-de-do than I ever wanted,” he joked.The medal was really a tribute to the entire team of airmen with whom he served, Stephenson claimed.

“When you get to be a major on up, any kind of an award like this is a reflection not on you, but the unit, the people you work with – not just Americans but also Iraqis,” he said. “What we were able to accomplish was just not because of me, but in a lot of ways, in spite of me.”

After the ceremony, Stephenson told reporters that the Iraqis are making great strides in building their air force capabilities, bringing the day closer when U.S. troops can come home. Other American airmen are continuing the work that Stephenson and his crew began in helping Iraqis build a myriad of capabilities – from piloting skills and aircraft maintenance to recruitment and payroll.

“They are making tremendous progress, though not progress quite by our standards; it will take some time to be really good at these things,” Stephenson said.
“The Iraqis are really good people,” he continued. “The folks I worked with on a day-to-day basis were heroes. Many had to come to work in a disguise. They risked their lives to help develop their country. They were happy we were there.”

Stephenson earned his commission in 1983 through the U.S. Air Force Academy with a degree in military history. He is a command pilot with more than 5,000 flying hours in a variety of aircraft, mostly the C-130. He previously served as the commander of the 517th Airlift Squadron in Elmendorf, Alaska. He received his first C-130 training at Little Rock AFB. His career includes three other assignments there prior to his deployment to Iraq.

The Bronze Star is awarded to individuals for heroic or meritorious service while serving with the U.S. military in any capacity, combat or non-combat, excluding aerial operations, during military engagement against an armed enemy. Of the 23 military decorations awarded to individual airmen or units, the Bronze Star is 11th in precedence, one rank above the Purple Heart and one below the Airman’s Medal. President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Bronze Star by executive order in 1944, retroactive to 1941, to honor heroism of ground troops. The Airman’s Medal had been instituted two years earlier.