U.S. Marine Receives Distinguished
Flying Cross at Buckingham Palace

By Donald E. Preston

Marine Maj. William Chesarek displays the Distinguished Flying Cross he received from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Photo by Mick Howard / DoD Photo

LONDON (USMC, Europe) — Many movies end with the hero appearing before the emperor and being recognized for saving the galaxy.

Marine Maj. William D. Chesarek Jr. is no actor, but he did appear before Queen Elizabeth II March 21 to receive the United Kingdom’s Distinguished Flying Cross at Buckingham Palace for saving lives and in recognition for his bravery during combat operations in Iraq; the first time for an American service member since World War II.

Assigned as an exchange officer with the UK’s 847 Naval Air Squadron, Commando Helicopter Force, based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, England, the U.S. Marine didn’t fly into combat in a space craft capable of warp speed or cloaking, but the UK’s Lynx Mk7 helicopter; the aircraft he used to dodge insurgent’s bullets and rocket propelled grenades and employ it in unconventional ways.

Through flight school training at Pensacola, Fla. and Corpus Christi, Texas he mastered the Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter; a two-seater, rotary-winged aircraft armed with weaponry with names like Hellfire, Sidewinder and Sidearm missiles.

Joining the UK squadron in 2005, he traded in the Super Cobra for the Lynx.

"It’s a very agile aircraft," said Chesareck, whose call sign is Punchy. "Its maneuverability is significantly enhanced compared to a Cobra. It’s like comparing a Mustang to a Porsche. They’re both great, but different." Then describing how his stomach turned witnessing an UK pilot doing a full 360 degree flip in the Lynx.

Flying the evening of June 10, 2006, Chesarek wasn’t doing flips with his Lynx, but providing radio communication relay for UK ground troops conducting a company-sized search operation in the vicinity of Al Amarah, Iraq. Listening to radio transmissions he overheard that a vehicle involved in the operation had became disabled and a crowd of insurgents were now firing small arms and rocket propelled grenades at the company.

According to his award citation, "Chesarek elected to fly low over the area in an attempt to distract the crowd and if possible, to engage the insurgents." Because of the close proximity of the crowd to the ground troops, instead of engaging his onboard Lynx general purpose machine gun, he "opted instead to provide bold, harassing, very low level flight over the area in an attempt to disperse the crowd."

Marine Maj. William Chesarek displays the Distinguished Flying Cross he received from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Photo by Mick Howard / DoD Photo

However, radio traffic from the ground told Chesarek he was now the target and drawing small arms fire and a rocket propelled grenade had just passed the rear of his aircraft.

This was not his first time in combat. He and his wife Christine, a U.S. Navy nurse, had served simultaneously in Operation Iraqi Freedom during the initial stages. But now in a different aircraft, with a different purpose, things were different. Last month, Chesarek’s UK commander and his crew had been shot down flying in the same type of aircraft.

"I had been in a couple of situations with troops in contact before," the 32-year-old Chesarek said. "I had a good idea of the kind of potential danger involved, but now I was listening to the individual commander on the ground. Some one was injured what can we do?"

Using his view from above, Chesarek applied his training as an airborne forward air controller to coordinate, designate and control fixed-wing assets in conducting close air support, resulting in the dispersing the insurgents.

Considered an "implied mission," Chesarek made the unconventional move to conduct a medical evacuation with the Lynx to help a UK soldier with a life-threatening head injury. As the only aircraft available to assist, he landed the Lynx in the vicinity of the company in distress as his door gunner and another crew member jumped out.

"My door gunner jumped out and picked up the injured soldier and put him in the helicopter," Chesarek said. "My other crewmember had to stay or we would have been overweight to fly."

Now, nine months later, Chesarek’s name echoed throughout the Ballroom of Buckingham Palace as he was called before the queen to be recognized and credited for "having a pivotal role in ensuring the rapid evacuation of [a] badly injured soldier and the safe extraction of the Company."

Donning his ceremonial uniform, Chesarek stood before the queen and hundreds in attendance, to include his parents, wife and two-year-old son, William. After Chesarek bowed, the custom when in front of her majesty, she placed her Kingdom’s level-three award for gallantry in the air while on active operation against the enemy, upon his chest. In light of his recognition, Chesarek reflected on his lost comrades and brothers in arms.

"I am greatly honored and would like to accept this prestigious award for 847 NAS in memory of Lt. Cmdr. Darren Chapman (Royal Navy), Capt. David Dobson (Army Air Corps), and Marine Paul Collins (Royal Marines), who were killed in action over Basrah in May 2006," said Chesarek. "The awarded actions were only possible due to the combined effort of my combat crew; Lt. David Williams (Royal Navy) and Lance Cpl. Max Carter (Royal Marines). My greatest sense of achievement that day is in knowing the ground troops all made it home."