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Air Force medic earns 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year recognition after heroism in Kenya

Staff Sgt. Colleen Mitchell, Air Force District of Washington Air Force Element member at the Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Maryland, stands at the campus entrance Aug. 6. The non-commissioned officer earned a coveted place in the Department of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

Staff Sgt. Colleen Mitchell, Air Force District of Washington Air Force Element member at the Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Maryland, stands at the campus entrance Aug. 6. The non-commissioned officer earned a coveted place in the Department of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Amaani Lyle)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- As the sole aerospace medicine technician on a three-person medical team deployed to Manda Bay-Camp Simba, Kenya, Staff Sgt. Colleen Mitchell found herself trying to unwind off-duty one Sunday by watching television at the Morale, Welfare, and Readiness center at 5 a.m.

In any other setting, pajamas and guilty-pleasure entertainment could be thought somewhat unremarkable – but this time, at the quiet seaside base near the Somali border, multiple mortar attacks, followed by small arms fire, would interrupt Mitchell’s show.

In support of Operation Octave Shield in October 2019, Mitchell set forth on her first and only deployment as an aerospace medical technician from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

On Jan. 5, 2020, Mitchell faced a monumental challenge to stay safe and save lives in the wake of Al-Shabaab militant attacks on the camp and its geographically-separated airfield. The raid began with a rocket-propelled grenade attack on a U.S. surveillance plane, an event which claimed two American contractors’ lives. In addition, a U.S. Army Soldier was killed during an ensuing gunfight.

The mass casualty event would ultimately result in the loss of three American lives and the destruction of multiple aircraft.

Mitchell now currently serves as an Air Force District of Washington Air Force Element member at the Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Maryland. Her quick thinking, courage, and commitment that fateful day rightfully earned her a coveted place in the Department of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program.
 
This is not a drill
 
“I heard the first mortar and just thought it was some kind of drill,” Mitchell said.

After all, it wasn’t unusual for the host nation and mission partners to use live fire and controlled detonations near the location. “When I’ve heard stories of other attacks, it always sounds like everyone knows right away that an attack is happening and it’s just, ‘battle stations, everyone,’ without needing to talk about it.”
 
Mitchell soon realized this was not a drill. She scrambled to the Based Defense Operations Center to set up an alternate casualty collection point. And although the CCP had been outfitted with litters, items such as controlled medications, automated equipment, and trauma “go bags” required transport from a medical hooch some 15 yards away – a distance that may as well have been light years in terms of exposure to direct and indirect fire.
 
“I wasn’t panicking about what to do,” Mitchell recounted. “I knew what I needed, where it was going to go, and how it was supposed to look, which was more comforting than one would think.”

The hours in the wake of the attack would become a crucible for the team, who began triage and treatment from multiple locations between the camp and airfield amidst an uptick in casualties and injuries with stifling 90-degree and rising heat. 

Team lead and physician’s assistant Maj. Stephan Kesterson up-channeled to embassy partners and East Africa component command networks information, reporting patients suffering everything from bilateral burn wounds, shrapnel wounds, shock, and fatigue. As they awaited the arrival of additional supplies and reinforcements, the value of time and teamwork could not be understated.
 
“With the airfield under attack, we knew we were on our own,” Mitchell recalled. Soon, additional medical assets arrived to initiate care, followed by fire personnel who Mitchell had previously trained as medical support, ready to assist.
 
Prior to Kesterson’s departure to the airfield for additional casualty assessment, Mitchell facilitated direct teleconsultation with stateside burn specialists and intra-theater medical colleagues; a key element in the management of a critically burned casualty in an austere location. 
 
The ordeal lasted for hours, with dizzying efforts to intercept five additional incoming casualties and stabilize patients from the low-light of dawn into the evening and late hours.
 
The camaraderie that Tampa, Florida, native Mitchell developed downrange, the result of networking and off-duty beach-going with other deployed personnel, perhaps buffered the sting of a 60-day delay in her return home, albeit as a recognized hero, during stop-movement orders at the peak of the COVID-19 virus crisis which began in 2020.

“It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in terms of the provider and patient relationship, because we all learned to know each other so well,” Mitchell said. “The attack highlighted our strengths and exposed our weaknesses, forcing us to re-assess our medical capabilities, and that upbeat in battle rhythm rippled across the camp, creating continuous training and the arrival of additional personnel after the attack.”

Kesterson, then deployed from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, now deputy chief of medical readiness training and doctrine at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency, Washington, said he can attest to the value of early communication and trust building, as it served his small but adept team well during the crisis.

The major maintains Mitchell is a prime example of the type of agile Airman the Air Force is looking to recruit, train, and retain to serve in its multi-capable air and space operations. 

"Ability and willingness are two components to readiness – and Sergeant Mitchell is the definition of a ready medic” Kesterson said. “She was pivotal to the success of our team throughout the deployment in evaluating and treating a number of disease and non-battle injuries, Military Working Dog support, non-battle trauma care, and host nation trauma and surgical assistance.” 

Kesterson noted that Mitchell also institutionalized the Defense Health Agency’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care All Service Members course early in their deployment to set, kit, and outfit their camp for basic lifesaving interventions.

Forever yoked by the life-changing experiences, the two still keep in close touch, and Kesterson said he sent a congratulatory text upon learning of her selection to OAY.

“Sergeant Mitchell has had my back since day one,” Kesterson said. “This deployment changed our lives and I am proud to hear of her selection for such a prestigious award, as this is well deserved.”

Mitchell said she fully understood the gravity of the 12 OAY award during a surprise ceremony at Defense Health Agency in Falls Church, Virginia, where her local leadership and Maj. Gen. Ricky N. Rupp, former AFDW commander, personally carried the news of her nomination and selection to the esteemed dozen.

“I blacked out; I had no idea it would be happening,” she said. “They were so proud of me, and they had to say it a couple of times before it clicked.”

With her sights now set on applying for the Air Force’s nursing enlisted commissioning program as she continues her academic studies as a part-time student, Mitchell reflected on what propelled her to success then and will do so in the future.

“I took home the importance of team,” Mitchell said. “From the moment I arrived on camp, I was never alone -- we trained, laughed, and cried with each other.”

The Air Force Personnel Center reported that a selection board considered 35 nominees who represented major commands, direct reporting units, field operating agencies, and Headquarters Air Force. The board selected the 12 Airmen based on superior leadership, job performance, and personal achievements. The winners are authorized to wear the OAY badge for one year from the date of formal presentation.
 
The Air Force 12 OAY presentation ceremony takes place at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference Sept. 20, 2021.