Bravery under fire rewarded

It didn’t seem like an unusual mission for the six New York Air National Guard members when the order first came down.

On Dec. 10, 2012, the Guardsmen, part of the 106th Air Rescue Wing, were ordered to pick up two U.S. soldiers injured in a surprise roadside bomb explosion in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. That order was later upgraded to four injured personnel, including three U.S. soldiers and an Afghani soldier.

Senior Master Sgt. Erik Blom, 37, a 1994 graduate of Gloversville High School, was in the second of two helicopters sent to the scene. He said that when the order came down, they were told the injured soldiers on the scene were not getting shot at. That changed when the first helicopter landed about 60 meters away from the scene.

“As soon as the first [helicopter] went in to land, the insurgents basically – it seemed like they were waiting for that,” Blom said recently from his home in Hampton Bays in Suffolk County, where he works as a police officer in addition to serving part-time in the Air National Guard. “They opened fire on it. We didn’t really realize that until we hit the ground. And there were Army guys on the ground. … They were returning fire, so we didn’t really know how many there were, where, or what was going on at that point.”

Last month, on Dec. 6, Blom and the rest of the team were awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, the fourth highest-ranking Air Force award for heroism, for their actions during the rescue mission. The awards were presented at a ceremony at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Suffolk County.

For Blom, who was enlisted full-time in the Army from 1994 to 2000 before joining the Guard in 2000, the award is an honor capping off an ongoing military career that has so far included three tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.

“Of course, you’re honored to be chosen to receive that award,” Blom said. “But it’s also humbling; unfortunately, someone died that day, and I don’t know if he’s going to get anything.

“No one is doing this for the awards,” Blom continued. “People do their jobs every day. For myself and everyone else out there, it feels a little surreal. You always hear the everybody [in the military] is just doing their job, and in fact, that’s the reality. You happen to do your job, and that’s what happened that day.”

Under heavy gunfire from insurgents, the six-man Guardian Angel Team – Blom, Capt. Ronnie Maloney, Staff Sgt. James Dougherty, Staff Sgt. Christopher Petersen, Technical Sgt. Anthony Yusup and Staff Sgt. Matthew Zimmer – managed to rescue the four injured soldiers. One of the injured U.S. soldiers, Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams, had lost three limbs and died after being transported to the hospital at Kandahar.

“We had to run about 60 meters to – it was like a mud wall where we could regroup with the rest of my team,” Blom said. “We get to that wall and at some point in there, they, the insurgents, were in a mud hut to our south. They fired a rocket at us, but it hit the wall, so it was ineffective.”

The rescue team was on the ground for 12 minutes, Blom said. That may not seem like a long time, but for Blom and his teammates, it was unusually long.

“Well, we normally land, pick someone up and we’ll be gone in a minute,” Blom said.

Blom’s family has a long history of military service. His father, Wayne Blom, retired from the Army in 1991 and relocated his family to Gloversville. Before that, the family, including Erik Blom’s mother, Mona, and four siblings, lived the military dependent life with stints in New Jersey, North Carolina and Germany.

It didn’t come as a surprise to his parents when Erik Blom and three of his siblings all enlisted in the military after graduating high school. His younger brother Kurt Blom, who was in the Air Force, died in a car accident in Meco in 2003.

“That was the main thing, I think, the family connection and tradition,” Wayne Blom, whose own father also served in the Army, said. “As long as we can remember that was the goal, to do the same thing I did. They did it, but they did it better.”

“When [the kids] were little, we would take them to the repelling towers; that was all they ever talked about,” Mona Blom said. “They were in the ROTC program when they were young. That’s pretty much all they wanted to do, was follow in their father’s footsteps.”

According to Mona Blom, when Erik Blom got out of the Army in 2000, he wanted to follow his older brother Wayne Blom Jr. into the Air Force as a pararescueman.

“We’re all paramedics and then some,” Erik Blom said. “To be able to have a mission, especially prior to the war when nothing was going on, to go out, do something positive, be able to rescue people … it seemed like a noble mission.”