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Bronze Star for Valor awarded to two New York Air National Guard Airmen killed in Afghanistan

By Staff Sgt. Julio Olivencia | New York National Guard | February 04, 2016

NEWBURGH, N.Y. - Two Airmen from the New York Air National Guard's 105th Airlift Wing have been posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal with "V" device for saving the lives of other Airmen at the cost of their own.

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Lemm, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa and four other Airmen were killed in action in Afghanistan on Dec. 21, 2015, when a suicide bomber on an explosive-laden motorcycle attacked their patrol outside Bagram Air Field.

When the insurgent made a sudden stop, just 15 feet from the dismounted patrol, Lemm and Bonacasa immediately "and with complete disregard for their own safety" took positions between the assailant and their team members, absorbing the brunt of the ensuing explosion and shielding other members of their team from fatal wounds, according to the award citation.

Lemm and Bonacasa were among seven security forces Airmen tasked to provide security for a team of Air Force Office of Special Investigations special agents and linguists who were on an intelligence-gathering mission in a village approximately 6 kilometers outside of Bagram Air Field.

"They selflessly gave their lives in defense of our country and they are our true American heroes," said Maj. Alta Caputo, commander of the 105th Base Defense Squadron.

The Bronze Star is the nation's fourth highest award for valor.

"Leading a team of passionate defenders, they took on the most challenging mission for themselves and epitomized the concept of leading from the front, a concept that has distinct risks that they both acknowledged and embraced," said Col. Timothy LaBarge, the 105th Airlift Wing commander. "Their example and sacrifice will never be forgotten as we do our part, on behalf of a grateful nation, to thank and memorialize them in perpetuity."

The 105th Airlift Wing held dignified transfer ramp ceremonies for Lemm and Bonacasa during the week after Christmas 2015.

A Stewart C-17 cargo plane flew Lemm's remains to Stewart Air National Guard Base on Dec. 28.

His casket was transferred from the aircraft to a waiting hearse.

In attendance were hundreds of military members stationed at Stewart and a large contingent of police officers from the New York City Police Department, where Lemm was a detective.

"Tech. Sgt. Lemm is a hero," LaBarge said at Lemm's transfer ramp ceremony. "He lived his life as a hero. He returns as a hero. But that fact makes today only marginally easier - it does not erase the pain. Not by a long shot."

Lemm, 45, was a resident of West Harrison, New York, and enlisted in the 105th Airlift Wing in 2008, serving his entire time with the 105th Base Defense Squadron as a security forces member. He had previously served in the military from 1988 to 1996.

His prior deployment experience included missions to Afghanistan from January to June 2013 and to Iraq from June to December 2011.

On Jan. 1, members of the 105th Airlift Wing traveled to Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base at West Hampton Beach, New York, to transfer the remains of Bonacasa.

Members of the 105th Airlift Wing, the 106th Rescue Wing and various first responders were in attendance.

"Duty threw down the gauntlet that fateful day, and Louis refused to compromise the safety of his fellow warriors nor the future safety of his wife or daughter," LaBarge said at Bonacasa's transfer ramp ceremony.

Bonacasa, 30, was a resident of Coram, New York. He enlisted in the active Air Force in 2002 and transitioned to the New York Air National Guard's 106th Security Forces Squadron, at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in 2008. He joined the 105th Base Defense Squadron in 2010.

He deployed to Afghanistan from January to June 2013, and to Iraq from June to December 2011.

Members of the 105th Base Defense Squadron have a unique mission. They provide security for air bases by conducting missions "outside the wire" and employ equipment and tactics similar to Army infantry Soldiers.

LaBarge said the 105th Airlift Wing is the only Air National Guard unit in the nation to have this mission, and one of only two in the entire Air Force.

"Typically speaking, that is a mission that would be done by the Marines, or the Army, and in some cases some of the Navy security forces," LaBarge said.

Lemm and Bonacasa are the 34th and 35th members of the New York National Guard to die in combat since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They are the second and third members of the New York Air National Guard to die in combat.

The first New York Air National Guard Airman to die in combat was Staff Sgt. Todd J. Lobraico Jr., who was killed while operating in the vicinity of Bagram Air Field Sept. 3, 2013. Like Lemm and Bonacasa, he was a member of the 105th Base Defense Squadron.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, 12 members of the New York Army and Air National Guard have died while deployed in Afghanistan.

Lemm and Bonacasa were also posthumously awarded a number of New York state awards for the Dec. 21 engagement. The two were also made honorary OSI agents.

"Joe and Bones, you have joined our Guardians in the sky who will forever be watching over us. You are both severely missed and you will never be forgotten," Caputo said.