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KAFB pilot honored for valor in Afghanistan

Capt. Thad L. Ronnau, a helicopter pilot instructor with Kirtland Air Force Base’s 58th Special Operations Wing, received the Cheney Award on Monday for his part in the 2012 rescue of a severely wounded soldier in Afghanistan. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Capt. Thad L. Ronnau, a helicopter pilot instructor with Kirtland Air Force Base’s 58th Special Operations Wing, received the Cheney Award on Monday for his part in the 2012 rescue of a severely wounded soldier in Afghanistan. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The harrowing helicopter rescue of a severely wounded soldier in Afghanistan in January 2012 garnered Air Force Capt. Thad L. Ronnau a prestigious Cheney Award on Monday during ceremonies at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Ronnau, 31, is an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter pilot instructor with Kirtland’s 58th Special Operations Wing, which trains special operations and combat search and rescue crews.

The Cheney Award is an aviation award presented annually by the Air Force in memory of 1st Lt. William Cheney, who was killed in an air collision over Italy in 1918. It was established in 1927, and is awarded to an airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft.

“For me, this is a huge honor,” Ronnau said shortly after receiving the award inside the massive hangar that houses the 58th’s CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Standing beside an HH-60G like the ones he’s flown during his five deployments to Afghanistan, Ronnau was quick to credit the other airmen who were in the two-helicopter formation involved in the noteworthy rescue.

“There were 12 other people in that formation,” Ronnau told his 58th Special Operations Wing comrades and 10 family members, adding that the only reason he was on the stage was because he happened to be the lead aircraft that day. The real credit, he said, belongs to the entire team, including the crews at Kandahar Air Base that maintained the helicopters.

According to the citation accompanying the award, Ronnau and his team – despite bad weather and low visibility that forced the choppers to fly about 150 feet off the ground – successfully evacuated a soldier who had suffered a spinal injury. While flying back to Kandahar, Ronnau’s Pave Hawk came under enemy ground fire, requiring skillful evasive maneuvers.

The citation is signed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III.

“You and your team will forever be part of Air Force history,” Col. Vincent Becklund, commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing, told Ronnau, adding that his actions showed his professionalism, technical competence and esprit de corps.

Ronnau, a native of Conway Springs, Kan., has been in the Air Force for 8½ years. He joined the 58th SOW 14 months ago. In 2010, Ronnau received a Distinguished Flying Cross for valor during a previous deployment to Afghanistan.

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