By Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Freese and Airman 1st Class Codee Smith, 19th Security Forces Squadron Defenders, received the Air Force Commendation Medal during a ceremony Sept. 14 at the Military Operations Urban Terrain (MOUT) Village on Little Rock Air Force Base.
What began as a normal day on June 15 quickly turned into a day that would prove training to be invaluable when dealing with life-threatening situations.
At approximately 9:15 a.m., after the peak of inbound morning traffic passed, the Defenders closed the entry control point on Vandenberg Drive to a single lane. In an instant, a calm situation turned chaotic when a person drove his SUV upwards of 80 miles an hour into the gate. Before ramming the gate, he hit a light post in front of the base visitor center. At that moment, the Defenders reacted as if the person was seriously injured and immediately went to render first aid.
That was until the person got out of the vehicle brandishing a rifle.
The Defenders then went from first responders rendering aid to controlling a hostile situation. After a series of verbal commands, the suspect aimed the weapon at one of the Defenders with the intent to fire. And the Defenders reacted, containing the situation and ultimately stopping the suspect with deadly force.
Ten seconds. That’s how long the Defenders had to react to the situation and regain control.
“One thing that stays with me is how the events went from a vehicle accident to a man with a weapon,” said Freese, a native of Jennings, Louisiana. “It happened so quickly, but we were ready.”
In those few split seconds between the vehicle crashing into a light post in front of the Visitors’ Control Center and the suspect exiting the disabled vehicle brandishing a weapon, the Defenders stepped up and took control of the situation without hesitation.
“When the wolf came knocking at the door ... every one of you ran to the sound of gunfire. It’s impressive that when civilians took cover, you ran toward danger,” said Col. Charles Brown Jr., 19th Airlift Wing and installation commander, before the medal presentation. “You couldn’t get there fast enough. When you come up to the base, there’s a sign that says ‘By order of the installation commander, no weapons allowed on base.’ You took your charge seriously, and your actions quite literally saved lives.”
For Smith, this instinct is something that was instilled in him from an early age.
“We brought him up in Alaska, and we taught him early on about guns and how to protect his family,” said Tammy Smith, mother of Airman Smith, natives of North Pole, Alaska. “I’m so glad that when this happened ... he followed his training and didn’t hesitate.”
For the 19th SFS Defenders, their actions can best be attributed to not only instinct, but also to the regular training that is conducted to keep their skills sharp and prepare them on how to address given scenarios.
“Muscle memory played a large part in how we responded that day,” Freese said. “We train to certain scenarios, and this was a perfect example of something we trained for and unfortunately had to deal with real-world. The thing about that day was everyone reacted - it wasn’t just one person leading and others following along. We reacted as a unit. That’s what training does.”
One Defender ran so quickly to the defense of his fellow Airmen that he had to unleash his military working dog because he was outrunning the service dog. All of these immediate actions were to ensure that the base perimeter was not breached and the safety of those on base and in the community directly outside the fence line remained safe.
“This proves that no matter how far you are from the flightline on Little Rock AFB, you are a Combat Airlifter,” Brown said. “The base remains safe because of their vigilance. My appreciation will never be grander for you.”
The 19th SFS worked closely with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Jacksonville Police Department and the FBI to bring a final resolution to the incident.