An Air Force special operations pilot was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at a July 6 ceremony on Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, for his efforts to resupply Army Special Forces soldiers under heavy fire in Afghanistan two years ago.
Maj. Michael Tolzien, from Kirtland’s 58th Special Operations Wing, received the DFC “with valor,” which means his actions were conducted at grave personal risk while engaged with the enemy, according to Kirtland officials.
In January 2016, while serving in Afghanistan, then-Capt. Tolzien received an alert for a high priority mission: A team of Green Berets was under heavy enemy fire, isolated from conventional support and would soon be overrun by enemy forces.
Tolzien’s crew prepared their MC-130J Commando II aircraft with 1,600 pounds of combat-critical supplies, to include ammunition, water and medical gear, that could be dropped to the ground team and assist them in pushing back the enemy.
After loading up and taking off, Tolzien’s aircraft began cruising toward the drop zone, which was changed multiple times due to the shifting nature of the ground combat situation.
The fluidity of the battle forced Tolzien’s crew to recalculate the perfect release point several times to ensure the supplies landed where U.S. forces, and not the enemy, could retrieve them.
Conditions were quickly deteriorating as the crew neared their objective and looked for the best spot to drop their haul. Tolzien’s aircraft was struck multiple times by enemy fire as it flew slow and low, at about 800 feet above the ground, looking for the drop point.
Despite the incoming rounds, Tolzien was able to remain calm and fly the plane steady enough that his crew dropped the supplies within 50 meters of the ground forces, “halting any further loss of life," according to the Air Force. The drop “directly contributed to a successful counterattack.”
“The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Captain Tolzien reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force,” the award citation reads.
Tolzien now serves as the chief of current operations at the 58th Operations Group, helping to train future special operations pilots.
“I’m humbled to receive this award ... and I know the training you’re getting here will prepare you to do the same thing in similar circumstances,” he told student-pilots at the 58th Special Operations Wing.
Col. Bradley Downs, vice commander of the 492nd Special Operations Wing, presented the award to Tolzien and called him one of the most “humble and unassuming aviators you’ll ever meet.”
“Tolzien is someone who lives the professional ethos we all hold dear,” Downs said.
Also at the ceremony was the mother, Joyce Montoya, and other relatives of McClintock, the only fatality of the attack that day. Two other soldiers were wounded.
McClintock posthumously received the Silver Star for running out of the compound in which his team was taking shelter, under fire, to find a landing zone so a helicopter could land and evacuate a wounded teammate, his wife previously told Army Times.
Four other members of Tolzien’s crew also received DFCs for their actions during the mission.
Capt. Charlotte Raabe, the crew’s combat systems officer, and Staff Sgt. Gary Bjerke, a loadmaster, received their DFCs in January. Then, in February, Capt. Joseph Castro, another pilot, and Staff Sgt. Joshua Call, the other loadmaster, also were awarded the DFC.
The DFC is a military decoration awarded to members of the U.S. military who distinguish themselves in support of operations by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.