Staff Sgt. Mark Cornett, 1st Helicopter Squadron special missions aviator instructor, won the Non-Commissioned Officers Association of the United States of America Vanguard Award on May 7, 2014, for his heroic actions which resulted in saving the life of a fellow Airman.
The Department of Defense’s NCOA Vanguard Award recognizes enlisted members who perform an act of heroism resulting in saving lives or preventing injury. The award is named in memory and respect of NCO’s who have received the Medal of Honor.
Cornett and Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Jacobs, a 55th Rescue Squadron special missions aviator, were deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. They were advising Afghan Air Force Mi-17 flight engineers and gunners in helicopter operations.
On October 8, 2013, they were tasked with transporting Afghan National Army military members from Tarin Kowt Airfield to the Gizab District of Uruzgan Province.
While preparing for the second troop movement; however, the unit received a call for a casualty evacuation for an Afghan National Police officer. Cornett organized and loaded approximately 25 combat-ready ANA soldiers, and departed for Gizab
As the Mi-17 helicopter formation traveled to the landing zone secured by ANP near the town center, hostiles engaged with small arms fire. Cornett called out enemy positions while the first helicopter was able to drop off its commando passengers and pick up the ANP officer.
“While directing evasive maneuvers, Cornett covered [the helicopters’] movements with suppressive fire,” Lt. Col. Timothy Buck, 1st Helicopter Squadron commander, said. “The crew’s expedient response to Staff Sgt. Cornett’s direction allowed the formation to escape follow-on [rocket-propelled grenade] fire.”
During the engagement, several rounds struck Cornett’s helicopter and a round struck Tech. Sgt. James “JJ” Juniper, a 441st Air Expeditionary Advisor Squadron special missions aviator, in the neck causing life-threatening bleeding.
“I tried to make contact to check for initial battle damage and Sgt. Juniper didn’t reply,” Cornett said. “All of a sudden, I saw a bloody hand reach up and try to hit on the flight engineer’s door to get his attention.”
After Juniper was shot, the mission changed from troop movement to getting Juniper medical attention, Cornett said.
“When I saw his hand, I knew then he wasn’t dead, but I didn’t know if he would survive,” Cornett said. “I looked over to Sgt. Jacobs; he shot up and headed toward Sgt. Juniper while I continued suppressive fire. When we were clear of hostiles, I climbed over the Afghan Commandos and applied direct pressure to the wound; I did everything I remembered from training and hoped for the best.”
Cornett and Jacobs continued to assist Juniper on the return flight to TKA and relay medical information.
“It was a 30 minute flight to the hospital; there was blood all over the floor and on us,” Cornett said. “After 15-20 minutes, we started to realize [his wound] was stabilizing and the blood loss was controlled.”
When the formation reached TKA, Cornett prepped Juniper for transport and helped him into an ambulance. Cornett went with him to the medical facility where he discussed the details of the injuries.
Juniper was at the deployed location for less than 30 days when he was shot.. He received a Purple Heart for wounds sustained during combat. Even after sustaining an injury and being offered a trip home, Juniper said the Air Force paid to train him for six months before deploying him so he wanted to stay, Cornett said.
“I feel very honored and proud to receive such a prestigious award, but I am more grateful that we all made it home,” Cornett said. “I may be receiving this award, but I know that each person on my crew played a critical role in saving JJ’s life as well as getting us out of there alive.”