A blue and white tribute

Maj. Paul Sonstein, C-17 pilot at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., at the opening Los Angeles Dodgers game (Photo courtesy of Jon Soo Hoo, Los Angeles Dodgers)

Maj. Paul Sonstein, C-17 pilot at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., at the opening Los Angeles Dodgers game. (Courtesy photo)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- A March Field pilot who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in Iraq was honored April 9 at the Los Angeles Dodgers season-opening baseball game.

Maj. Paul Sonstein, a C-17 pilot who was then stationed at McChord AFB, Wash., was flying continuous missions back and forth from Iraq. On Dec. 9, 2003, just as he, his crew of four others and a cargo full of troops and supplies were leaving the Baghdad International Airport, his number two engine was hit by enemy ground fire.

"Initially I was scared," he said.

Major Sonstein credits C-17 simulator training as well as his co-pilots and loadmasters pulling together and working as a team for the safe landing.

"It was actually easier than the simulator." 

They returned to the airport and everyone evacuated safely. Major Sonstein made his way from the C-17 as fire trucks swarmed around it, working to put out the flames.

"It felt awesome to get off the aircraft and to look back and to be on the ground."

Yet, when asked if he felt like a hero, he humbly said, "Not me. The crew all came together and we just did what we were supposed to do."

He and his crew were presented air medals by Vice President Cheney less than two weeks later. Shortly after, the major's medal and those of the two others responsible for the actual flying of the aircraft were upgraded to the Distinguished Flying Cross.

A year-and-a-half after transferring to March, where he works as a C-17 mission coordinator and planner with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing's current operations staff, the self-proclaimed "huge Dodgers fan" became a bit anxious prior to stepping onto the field next to the likes of Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, Jason Schmidt and the rest of the five-time World Series championship team.

His parents flew in from Hawaii to attend the game with him and his girlfriend.

They almost missed the game after getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic. Barely arriving on time he was immediately whisked away to a reception area where he met fellow honoree Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Anderson, who received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart
when his vehicle was hit by enemy fire in Iraq. After meeting, the two military men were brought down to the field as the players were introduced.

"I was very nervous to be out there in front of everyone. I could see my mom, dad, and uncle in their seats, which was really great. It was pretty overwhelming to face the sea of people as I stood on the field when they read my name."

A 300 foot by 150 foot American flag draped across the background and a group of Little Leaguers lined up along the infield as Major Sonstein was introduced to a sold out crowd who greeted him back with a thunderous roar.

"They said I was there because of my participation in Iraq and that I had been awarded in person with a medal by the vice president. Everyone clapped. It made me feel really proud to be an American."

After the presentation, he stood in front as "America the Beautiful" and the national anthem were sung. Despite all of the hoopla, his favorite part of the day was just getting to watch the game. The Dodgers ended up losing to the Colorado Rockies 6-3.
"This was the first time I've been able to go to a game in California. My parents are extremely busy and rarely get time off, which made this extra special."