WILL ROGERS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Okla. --
Part-time service member, full-time citizen.
It’s an unspoken expectation as part of a member’s service in the Oklahoma Air National Guard at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base that “part-time” does not mean their service stops when they are living a life as a civilian. Their service in the military is part time, but those values are ingrained. Although it is rarely seen in the civilian world, fellow service members are hardly surprised to hear one of their fellow Airmen stepped up when called.
Master Sgt. Bryan Whittle, assigned to the 205th Engineering and Installation Squadron (205th EIS), was awarded the Airman’s Medal – the Air Force’s highest noncombat award – in a ceremony December 8, 2019, at Will Rogers for doing exactly that.
As all service members present at the ceremony stood at attention, Whittle’s actions to stop an active shooter at Louie’s Grill and Bar by Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City on May 24, 2018, were read aloud by a member of Whittle’s squadron who narrated the ceremony.
Whittle was driving out of town from his residence near Oklahoma City for a weekend fishing trip with his wife. He was at a stoplight near Louie’s and noticed the area outside of the lakeside bar was in chaos. He thought someone might have drowned, so he turned into the parking lot to offer the first aid kit he kept in his truck.
When they had turned into the parking lot, the scene was not that of a drowning. There was an active shooter in the lot who had already hurt three people. Whittle quickly adapted, getting his pistol that was in his car from his wife. She threw him the weapon, he told her “I love you,” and approached the gunman to prevent him from hurting more people.
Whittle attempted to verbally convince the shooter to surrender, but received fire in response. Whittle returned fire until the gunman fell to the ground, then he and an off-duty security guard also in the parking lot neutralized the gunman until police arrived to take over the scene.
The silence during the reading was broken by the applause of a majority of the base who had turned out to support Whittle as he received his medal.
“Because of the weight of the award, just being nominated meant a lot for me,” Whittle said. “Having the local base family recognize me in that manner meant enough, whether I got it or not.”
The Airman’s Medal is awarded to any member of the armed forces of the U.S. or of a friendly nation who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Air Force after the date of the award's authorization, has “distinguished himself or herself by a heroic act, usually at the voluntary risk of his or her life but not involving actual combat.”
That full-time citizen character is what can make the difference for action in a situation like the one Whittle faced as a civilian, and even those who serve full-time in active duty understand how important it is to recognize heroism while not on duty.
“The past 19 years, I’ve been in the military, so it doesn’t just turn off,” Whittle said. “I was surprised there was an award that honored your actions when you weren’t in a wartime environment or affiliated with an active duty environment.”
The day after the shooting, he received messages of support from many high-ranking command staff members in the Air Force whom he never thought he would encounter in his career. To have that when he acted as a civilian was very momentous to him and makes him appreciate the award even more.
“I didn’t even know the proper way to respond to those texts with proper customs and courtesies, but you know, I had more outreach from the military than any other kind of organization,” he said. “So yeah, it was overwhelming, but that’s why being nominated for the award means so much to me – more than actually getting the award. For the higher Air Force command to have appreciation for guardsmen or reservists or anyone not on active duty, it’s nice to know they recognize that.”
Whittle does not feel he is exceptionally heroic for his readiness to help that day and has always tried to be a quiet role model for the Airmen around him. Being singled out from his peers for acts of heroism was never something he expected.
“We’re all the same cut here, not just in my unit, but across base,” Whittle said. “You know, you’re kind of a product of your environment, and my environment is the Guardsmen out here 90% of the time. You're looking at me for a hero... Well guess what, there's a thousand more every weekend that pull up, you know? So it's just not me. There's a ton of us.”
He is more than familiar with the environment at the Guard base. For all 19 years of his military service, Whittle has been at Will Rogers with the 205th EIS and also works with many people from his squadron at his civilian job.
“We met before he joined the military, and I was enlisted,” said Senior Master Sgt. Micah Willhight, non-commissioned officer in charge of engineering at the 205th EIS. “We worked at the same civilian job, and he joined my squadron in the same career field. We still work together at the Guard and now as civilians for the same division at the Federal Aviation Administration. All of us at the 205th EIS are proud to see him receiving an award for being the person we already know that he is.”
And while Whittle appreciates the comfort, support and recognition offered by his military family, he also very much wants to share this award with the member of his family who was by his side throughout the ordeal.
“For my wife to be in that situation and handle it like she did, I want to make this about us and not about me,” Whittle said. “I get recognized for what I did, but she had complete trust and faith in me. I don't think I could see my spouse take off and do that, and I feel like that’s braver than anything I did.”