Bronze Star recipient embodies “mission first, people always”

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Siuta B. Ika
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
Many Bronze Star Medal recipients will say receiving the award is a humbling experience. For Lt. Col. Thomas McCurley, Detachment 2, Air Combat Command Training Support Squadron commander, saying it's humbling is an understatement.

According to McCurley's award citation, McCurley distinguished himself as commander, 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, while supporting ground operations against the enemy from Dec. 22, 2010 to Dec. 22, 2011. During this period, McCurley provided superb leadership as the unit's first commander and enabled critical intelligence collection and precise on-call strike capabilities in support of special operations forces ground commanders.

"To be clear, this decoration is not really mine," McCurley said. "This award represents the dedication, professionalism and sacrifice of 87 Airmen, who had to set up a forward operating base 1,200 miles from our parent wing. I received the Bronze Star because I commanded the unit. I would rather have recognized my troops instead."

To McCurley, the words on his award citation only represent a shadow of what his unit achieved.

"Our greatest accomplishment was that we flew every single sortie the Air Force asked us to fly, despite the challenges we encountered," McCurley said. "What the airplanes did down range was a bonus because it helped bigger operations succeed. We were an integral part in taking down some very important targets, which means a lot to me."

Even though he's been on more than 10 deployments during his 20-year career, this past deployment will always rank among his most memorable.

"I walked into a squadron that was made up of essentially three different career fields - maintenance, operations, and security forces," McCurley said. "As individuals, we had never worked so closely together with each other before. But we all became so close that within months, instead of having three different groups of guys working in one compound, we had one group of Americans working together to accomplish a difficult mission. I feel honored to have served with each of my Airmen and forever enriched by what they taught me along the way."

The biggest reason why his squadron was so successful, McCurley said, was because of his Airmen's willingness to sacrifice their personal well being to ensure mission success.

"Summers at our deployed location saw 120 degree heat and 80 percent humidity, and our war reserve air conditioners literally short circuited in the vain attempt to cool the tents in which we worked. To offset the load, we had to institute rolling blackouts during daylight hours to minimize the strain," McCurley said. "The plan failed to work until two aerospace ground equipment technicians, also from Holloman, sat outside all day in the sun rewiring every single machine to keep them running. I can't say that I can ask much more out of an individual or group than those two gave me, and if anything, they represent a microcosm of the sacrifice every Airman in theater makes. Also, our small group of security forces personnel guarded the compound, flight line, and other allied assets at posts exposed to the elements with no air conditioning at all. How can you ask somebody to stand in the heat, do their job, and remain alert at all times? But, they did."

McCurley also said that the 49th Wing played a major role in his squadron's success.

"We had just stood up a new location, and the supply chain hadn't matured enough to get us reliable shipments. It got to the point where we had five aircraft torn apart just to keep the last two flying," he said. "I called back and told the wing my problem, and wing leadership, the maintenance group, and the logistics squadron worked together to get us the supplies and sustained us during that dry period. If it wasn't for their support, we would've failed, so I owe the entire wing a debt of gratitude for what they've done. Whatever that Bronze Star [citation] says was actually the work of those 87 Airmen, but those Airmen couldn't have done it without the support of the 49th Wing."

Even though McCurley feels he doesn't deserve the medal, it does connect him to his late grandfather, who received a Bronze Star for his actions during the Invasion of Normandy in 1944.

"He never talked about the war after he got home, so I don't have a lot of information about what he did. But the story that I've been told was that his unit was pinned down by a German company, and he went out to the middle of the field, under fire, to direct artillery fires, which disrupted the enemy and allowed his unit to withdraw," McCurley said. "The day I was officially awarded the medal was June 6, the 68th anniversary of D-Day. The irony of me receiving that decoration the same day, 68 years later, as he started his odyssey in the European Campaign, kind of set me back a little bit. He died before I was born, but this gives me a tie with him that I never had before, even though his was for valor and mine was for the achievement of others."

Overall, the experience gained from this and previous assignments will aid McCurley in his future endeavors.

"I'm being matched for a staff assignment, but I don't know where yet," McCurley said. "I've been fortunate enough to see my aircraft program expand from being relatively unknown to the most requested asset in theater. Seeing what the crews are going through on the line, and experiencing operations first hand, puts me in a great position to help further the career field."

No matter where his career takes him, McCurley is humbly adamant about one thing: taking care of his people.

"My leadership philosophy is mission first, people always," he said. "We have to get the mission done no matter what, even if that means sacrificing one of our own, but I'm going to take care of the guys that do that. If you give me 100 percent, I'm going to give you 110 to make sure you're taken care of. Six months after leaving the job I still find myself working to get their decorations through the system. For that reason, the Bronze Star is a touch bittersweet for me. This award is very much appreciated, but it was all due to the actions of 87 Airmen that did their part in defending our country, and they still deserve their due recognition."