2014 airforce Times
Honorable Mentions

Tech. Sgt. Rafael Rhodes

99 Ground Combat Training School Operations Division, Creech Air Force Base, Nevada

Assignment: Combat training instructor at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Rhodes works and trains with units to prepare for deployment, which includes his primary duty to train deploying military working dogs and MWD teams. He was previously at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, between 2008 and March 2014.

Personal: A Miami native, Rhodes enlisted in 2004 and enjoys “the typical guy stuff — weightlifting, movies, hanging out with friends.” Rhodes is the father of a 3-year-old boy.

Rhodes, a security forces airman and dog handler, was on his third deployment in four years when the convoy he was leading began taking small arms fire Aug. 9, 2013. In the chaos, a man waiting to detonate an IED ran from the scene, an indication of potential explosives in the area.

Rhodes and his dog Nero were hit, but the two swept the high-risk area for more IEDs before returning to his mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle to administer first aid to the unconscious vehicle gunner who also was wounded.

For his actions that day, he was awarded the Purple Heart and Air Force Combat Action Medal.

Rhodes sustained a concussion and ankle injury, and Nero’s ear drums were perforated. The Air Force Combat Action Medal cites Rhodes’ bravery in directly engaging the enemy while his life was at risk of grave danger. 

“I’m glad I was able to impact the mission and help others’ lives as far as coming home,” Rhodes told Air Force Times. “And while I’m a general combat instructor, the most fulfilling part is teaching these individuals to come home in one piece.”

Rhodes deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, between July and December 2013. He led more than 150 outside-the-wire security patrols 8 miles outside base, and, often with Nero, searched more than 30,000 vehicles and 250 tons of cargo. 

Maj. Sarah Babbitt, Rhodes’ former 7th Security Forces Squadron commander, wrote in nominating Rhodes for 2014 Airman of the Year that he is “highly deserving of recognition” — for actions on the battlefield and back home at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. Rhodes was a first responder in the widely publicized case of 22-month-old Tamryn Klapheke, who died of starvation in her on-base home while her father was deployed. Rhodes ensured the safety of the other two Klapheke children, Babbitt wrote.

“At the time this happened, my boy was 2, and I grew to appreciate my family life so much more because of everything that I saw and everything that happened,” Rhodes said

Rhodes left Dyess for his new job as a combat instructor at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, in March, where he is passing on to trainees his lessons from the battlefield and his six years as a dog handler.

“Whenever we’re able to train, whether it be a dog team or just security forces members ... teaching the old dogs some different tricks or teaching the new kids something they’ve never learned and see them advancing and doing well is very fulfilling,” Rhodes said.

He said he’s ready to deploy “wherever the Air Force needs me to be, and I’m looking forward to the next time I get the chance.”

Rhodes would like to volunteer in his free time, possibly as a little league football coach in Las Vegas. He said he one day hopes to coach high school football and be a role model for kids.


Capt. Benjamin Wilson

111th Air Support Operations Squadron, Washington Air National Guard

Assignment: Fighter duty officer with 111th Air Support Operations Squadron, an Air National Guard forward-deployed squadron at Camp Murray, Washington, that supports and directs close air support for ground commanders and forces.

Personal: Wilson followed in his father’s footsteps, retired Lt. Col. Lynn Wilson, to join the Air Force. He started his military career in the Montana State University ROTC program. Originally from Takoma, Washington, Wilson now lives with his family in Gig Harbor.

Capt. Benjamin Wilson was the man behind the scenes during his deployment to Afghanistan, responding to calls for close-air support from tactical airmen on the battlefield.

During his deployment with the 111th Air Support Operations Squadron between February and September 2013, he handled 2,687 requests for close-air support resulting in over 500,000 pounds of ordnance expended, said Maj. David Stilli, detachment commander with the 111th.

It was Wilson’s sixth deployment, but his first to Afghanistan as a fighter duty officer with the Washington Air National Guard.

“I will say his leadership not only overseas, but while CONUS is second to none,” Stilli said. “He is well respected up and down the chain of command.”

As an acting air director, Wilson supported 85,000 coalition troops and found a way to shorten response times for close-air support, said Stilli, who nominated Wilson for 2014 Airman of the Year.

“Captain Wilson established new processes eliminating mission waste freeing up 10 aircraft sorties a day for CAS taskings and decreasing response times by 35 percent,” Stilli said.

Wilson was commissioned in 2005 out of ROTC as an electronic warfare officer on EC-130Hs flying out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, with the 55th Electronic Combat Group. Over the next six years, he deployed five times for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and for missions in Qatar, Columbia and Libya.

He transferred to the Guard in 2011 and said it’s one of the best moves he has made.

“The troops I work with in the Guard are some the best guys you’d ever meet from a professional and tactical standpoint. Bar none, the best. And to me, that’s not something I was expecting,” Wilson said.

Wilson, whose off-duty job is with electric utility Peninsula Light, hopes to stay with his Guard squadron for the rest of his career.

Meanwhile, he is an active volunteer: Peninsula Light shipped school supply donations to Afghanistan on his behalf during his deployment. He volunteers as a community firefighter and as a YMCA swim coach. He set up and walked in two “Relay for Life” cancer events.

And he volunteered more than 50 hours of his time to raise $3,500 for the Key Peninsula Red Barn Youth Center Energy Conservation Project.

“It gets dark around 4 p.m. here, and the kids that get off the school buses get off on a small highway — we worked on [providing] lighting for them to get home safely,” he said of the project.

Wilson also works on various projects to educate community members on how best to conserve power.

— Oriana Pawlyk