David Kroontje, Gregory Balzhiser

Spotlight on You: David Kroontje, Gregory Balzhiser

Misawa pilots save Iraqi civilians, earn 2014 Mackay Trophy

by: Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton, 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs | .
Misawa Air Base | .
published: December 17, 2015

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Stranded on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, without food, water or medical care, facing starvation and dehydration, and under constant enemy gunfire, more than 40,000 Iraqi Yazidis were saved by a multinational coalition force led by Misawa Air Base F-16C Fighting Falcon pilots during an airstrike Aug. 9, 2014.

The 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron pilots’ efforts during the strike helped Peshmerga forces the next day set up a safe corridor from Mount Sinjar, saving the lives of the stranded civilians including women, children, elderly, and the infirm, and earned them the 2014 Mackay Trophy, which was presented during a ceremony Dec. 3 in Arlington, Virginia.

“Getting from the flightline to putting bombs on target takes an immense effort by Airmen across many disciplines,” said Capt. David Kroontje, who has since transferred to the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph AFB, Texas. “I’m happy and gratified to know that all the training and effort we put in every day allowed us to have such a positive impact on such a large group of peaceful folks just trying to live their lives.”

Kroontje and his wingman, Capt. Gregory Balzhiser, now a member of the 31st Operations Support Squadron at Aviano AB, Italy, made up Ironhand Flight 41. The two pilots flew four attacks during the eight-hour mission spanning 500 miles over enemy-controlled terrain. They destroyed three Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) blockades, multiple armored vehicles, observation posts and killed dozens of ISIL fighters attacking Yazidi civilians on the mountain.

“Thanks for showing us how this business is supposed to be done,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said when presenting the trophy to the pilots. “Thanks for showing that humanity is the root of airpower. And thanks for showing how professional our Airmen can do a job in a horrible situation, at night, in a place you never dreamed of going.”

The Mackay Trophy was first presented by Clarence Mackay in 1912 and was later deeded to the National Aeronautic Association. Administered by the U.S. Air Force and NAA, the trophy is awarded for the “most meritorious flight of the year by an Air Force person, persons, or organization.”

“Really it’s all about focus,” Kroontje said. “When you are taking people’s lives, there is no room for error. For me, I was only thinking about how [my wingman] and I could work together to accomplish what turned out to be a challenging set of mission requirements.”

Lt. Col. Luke Casper, the 13th Fighter Squadron commander, said their “selfless bravery” epitomized Air Force core values, displaying sound leadership and attention to detail.

“We’re proud of our Airmen, officers and enlisted alike, and I’m humbled to have the opportunity to serve alongside true patriots like ‘Smack’ Balzhiser and ‘Compton’ Kroontje,” the colonel said. “Airmen, like these two, showcase what it truly means to be a Misawa Wild Weasel.”

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