For Today's Air Force, a New Symbol of Valor

Master Sgt. Charlie Peterson with the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
Master Sgt. Charlie Peterson with the Air Force Combat Action Medal. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In all the time she spent working on the nation's newest military award, Arlington County artist Susan Gamble never actually saw it in its most important setting: hanging from an airman's chest. That changed yesterday.

"There was definitely a lump in the throat when he pinned it on the first jacket," Susan said. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, had presented history's first Air Force Combat Action Medals during a ceremony under the three twisting spires of the Air Force Memorial.

That's a lot of "Air Forces" in one sentence, but yesterday was all about that branch of the service and how it's changed. For instance, these days it's not just pilots getting shot at.

"We didn't expect to be in a firefight prior to that deployment," said Air Force Master Sgt. Charlie Peterson of Detroit. "But it happened, and we responded well."

Master Sgt. Peterson was talking about July 28, 2004, when he was in a convoy traveling between two supply points in Iraq. A roadside bomb packed with ball bearings exploded, engulfing the 18-wheeler in front of his vehicle in flames and spraying him with shrapnel.

"The thing about fear, I don't think that ever came to mind," said Master Sgt. Peterson. "Maybe after the fact, like, ' Whoa, I just did what?' "

What he did was check on his commander and gunner, secure the perimeter, call in reinforcements, then accompany the convoy to a safe zone before being medevaced out.

The medal Gen. Moseley pinned on his uniform yesterday reaches deep into Air Force history for its symbolism. It's patterned after the insignia painted on an aircraft piloted in World War I by Gen. Billy Mitchell, the father of the Air Force. A laurel wreath surrounds an art-deco-style eagle, whose head is turned toward the arrows clutched in its right talons. (Not toward the olive branch in its left; this is a combat medal, after all.) The eagle dangles from a diagonally striped red and gold ribbon.

There's a lot of salad on a lot of chests in Washington, but few medals are as distinctive as this one. Susan Gamble, 49, is a graphic designer for the National League of Cities. She has also designed coins for the U.S. Mint. This job was a little more personal. Her husband, Mike, is an Air Force colonel.

"It was just a real pleasure to give this back to the Air Force that's been part of my life," she said.

The Institute of Heraldry at Fort Belvoir tweaked the design. Then a manufacturer had to be found. The eagles were easy. Ira Green Inc. of Providence, R.I., made them. The jaunty ribbon was harder. No U.S. mill could weave slanted stripes, and you can't give out an American medal made in a foreign country. Bally Ribbon Mills in Pennsylvania bought a special loom just for the fabric.

Yesterday's other Air Force Combat Action Medal recipients were Staff Sgt. Daniel L. Paxton of Abingdon, Va.; Capt. Allison K. Black of North Point, N.Y.; Master Sgt. Byron P. Allen of Birmingham; Senior Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez of Bridgeport, Conn.; and Maj. Steven A. Raspet of Fountain Valley, Calif.

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