Tech. Sgt. Brandon Daugherty and Capt. Kevin Epstein received the Bronze Star with Valor for rescuing retired Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Stringer, center, during a 2012 firefight in Afghanistan. (Senior Airman Sivan Veazie/Air Force)
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Two pararescuemen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, were awarded the Bronze Star with Valor June 2 for a dramatic rescue of troops inside a burning, overturned vehicle in Southern Afghanistan, and the Marine they saved was on hand for the ceremony.
On Feb. 21, 2012, then-First Lt. Kevin Epstein and then-Staff Sgt Brandon Daugherty, commander and team leader of a Guardian Angel rescue crew at Camp Bastion, got the call to scramble: An International Security Assistance Force mounted patrol was hit with an improvised explosive device in the Helmand River Valley Area. One mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle was burning on its side, and inside were two casualties, one wounded and one killed in action.
The four-member rescue crewpiled into a British EH-101 Merlin helicopter, along with three firefighters from the United Kingdom, according to a narrative of the rescue provided by Davis-Monthan.
On the way, the group could not confirm with troops on the ground that the landing zone was safe. Secondary IEDs also were a threat, and the troops on the ground had just been in a direct firefight.
The Merlin landed away from the wrecked MRAP, and the team ran to the scene. Epstein coordinated with the Marine Corps officer in charge.
The MRAP was still burning, with ordnance “cooking off” and exploding as the group advanced. Daugherty worked with the firefighters to try to control the flames, as unexploded .40mm high explosive, dual purpose grenades and .50 caliber rounds continued to burn. The group used the Jaws of Life to cut open the 1,000-pound rear door of the MRAP to climb inside the burning vehicle.
“We were going in and out on breath holds because smoke was still billowing,” Daugherty said at the ceremony.
As the crews rescued survivors and recovered the KIA, another IED exploded. The blast blew Epstein’s helmet off, severing his radio set.
The second blast hit a Marine Corps EOD technician, mangling his jaw. Daugherty and his team immediately cleared his airway, saving his life, and radioed for another evacuation.
“When we put the tube in and I heard a gasp of air, I thought for the first time that this guy might make it,” Daugherty said at the ceremony.
The Marine, retired Staff Sgt. Michael Stringer, said at the Davis-Monthan ceremony the two airmen are the reason he is alive.
“I would not be here at all if it wasn’t for these gentlemen,” Stringer said.
Col. Sean Choquette, commander of the 563rd Rescue Group, presented the awards to Epstein, now a captain, and Daugherty, now a technical sergeant.
“He and his teammates’ lay their lives on the line daily to protect those who follow them,” Choquette said at the ceremony. “It is incredibly courageous work.”
Another member of the rescue team, Staff Sgt. Matthew Zimmer, a pararescueman with the 103rd Rescue Squadron of the New York Air National Guard, also was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor last month for his work in the rescue.
The last member of the group, Senior Airman Andrew Williamson, was recognized in the Air Force’s “Portraits in Courage” this year and was nominated for the Bronze Star.