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By T.D. Flack

Stars and Stripes Pacific edition

Sunday 1 December 2002

SEOUL – Two Kunsan Air Base fighter pilots on Wednesday received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroic actions performed during combat missions over Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. And to make the event even more memorable, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, in town as part of a tour of Pacific bases, presented Major James R. Sears and Captain Andrew J. Lipina their medals.

One of the highest decorations awarded in the military, the Distinguished Flying Cross honors a single act of heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. Sears, now with Kunsan's 35th Fighter Squadron, participated in a three-month deployment to Afghanistan with the 354th Fighter Wing from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, earlier this year.

Major James R. Sears - On Jan. 20, enemy forces downed a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter in the mountains south of Kabul. Sears, piloting his F-16CG, was the on-scene commander of the search-and-rescue efforts deep in enemy territory. According to his award citation, he found the site and controlled 13 aircraft, including two unmanned aerial vehicles, five helicopters, a C-130, two F-18s and two F-15Es in a five-nautical-mile radius of the crash site. Sears, a 12-year Air Force veteran, said the mission was dangerous.

"The area had been fairly hot for about a week prior to the helicopter going down," he added. He said his wife and family are proud of the award. Sears was so caught up in the activities and events that he never thought about earning any medals for his mission that day, which exceeded 11 hours of duty. His citation reads that he "displayed outstanding courage and superior airmanship in the face of personal danger."

"I just felt like I was doing what needed to be done at the time," Sears said. But, he added: "It's one of the most memorable times I've had in my 12 years in the Air Force."

Captain Andrew J. Lipina - About six weeks after Sears' incident, enemy forces shot down an MH-47 Chinook helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade and forced another to land. It was the third day of Operation Anaconda, and Lipina was scheduled to fly. Just before leaving, he learned there was possibly one helicopter down and in need of combat search-and-rescue support. Lipina, arriving on scene about dawn, took control of the command and control and communications.

He said the scariest part of the day was making strafing runs on the Taliban forces, who were only about 100 yards from the U.S. troops, separated by the downed helo. He thought he'd killed U.S. troops. "Unbeknownst to us, they were still taking people out of the helicopters while we were strafing," he said.

Lipina made two strafing runs, firing all 500 rounds of 20 mm canon fire, something F-16 pilots use more for effect. But on this day, "it was strafing to kill," he said. He said he's heard that the troops on the ground consider the pilots "their lifesavers." We'll never have to buy beer again if we're on their base," he joked. His mother, Judy, was happy to talk about her son during a phone interview from Indiana. She said Lipina's father, who served in the Air Force as an enlisted airman, "is so proud I think his buttons are about to pop off."

"The English language doesn't have words for how proud we are that he's defending our country," Judy said."

Speical to Historical Militaria – 1 December 2002

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