Timothy A. Wilkinson is a genuine American hero. Describing his actions in October 1993 during Operation RESTORE HOPE in Somalia, his Air Force Cross citation uses the words “extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy.” At the time, TSgt Timothy A. Wilkinson was a pararescueman assigned to the 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
On October 3, Wilkinson and fellow pararescueman MSgt Scott C. Fales were responding to a crisis after a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher shot down an MH–60 helicopter carrying U.S. Army Rangers. A Ranger Task Force in the vicinity responded to secure the crash site and protect Americans, and the result was a seventeen-hour firefight, the longest sustained by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War. While the final U.S. casualties were eighteen killed and eighty wounded, the valor of three Airmen, Wilkinson, Fales, and Combat Controller SSgt Jeffrey W. Bray—all with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron—proved vital in preventing a far worse outcome.
An MH-60 delivered the combat search and rescue element, including Wilkinson, Fales, and thirteen Rangers. Amid intense small arms and RPG fire, the team slid down ropes (a “fast rope insertion”) to the crash site. While an RPG hit the main rotor of the helicopter, the pilot held it in position until the team was clear of the ropes and then flew it home.
Under heavy fire, Wilkinson quickly extracted five wounded Rangers on board the crashed helicopter, one by one to a control point where Fales, who had sustained a leg wound, provided treatment. Fales also provided cover fire while Wilkinson moved the wounded. Both of the medics used their own bodies to shield the wounded from continuous fire. Bray proved invaluable in coordinating helicopter gunship fire against the enemy, some as close as fifteen meters to where the medics and the casualties were located. Wilkinson worked “furiously” to treat the wounded and made his way through enemy fire to replenish needed medical supplies and treat wounded Rangers.
On the morning of October 4, an armored United Nations task force arrived to turn the tide. In spite of the odds against them, heavily outnumbered, the Airmen attributed their survival to their training, noting that the realism and intensity of their training made every action so instinctive—“muscle memory”—that there was no time to think through what was happening.
Wilkinson’s heroism in October 1993 was briefly immortalized in the movie “Black Hawk Down,” but that operation was neither his first nor his last contribution to combat search and rescue. During Operation JUST CAUSE, he treated casualties in support of fifty special operations missions in Panama, and in Operation UPHOLD DEMOCRACY in Haiti in 1994, he served as a combat search and rescue team leader, producing a search and rescue plan that proved instrumental to the success of the overall task force mission. Following his retirement from active duty as a master sergeant, Wilkinson continued to serve his country and special operations forces as a Department of Defense civilian, leading the personnel recovery development and implementation office at U.S. Special Operations Command.
At the ceremony when Wilkinson received his Air Force Cross, he expressed his gratitude for the honor. At the same time, he requested that all present remember those teammates who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the service of their country.