A year to remember: Battle-tested STO recognized as AFSOC OAY

  • Published
  • By Lt. Alejandra Fontalvo
  • 24th Special Operations Wing

For most, 2020 was marked by the new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic including working from home, zoom meetings and travel restrictions. However, the pandemic did not slow down the accomplishments of one Special Tactics Officer who had one of the busiest and rewarding years of his career thus far.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Nate Peeler, a STO assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida was recognized as one of Air Force Special Operations Command’s 2020 Outstanding Airmen of the Year in the Company Grade Officer category during a ceremony May 13, 2021. 

While Peeler attributes the award to a lot of good luck and timing, his proficiency in his field afforded him opportunities to serve in various leadership roles throughout the year. He started his year deployed as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller attached to a U.S. Army Special Forces team in Afghanistan.

“I was very fortunate to have been placed on a team where we had a lot of kinetic effects on the battlefield,” said Peeler. “It was the most rewarding and gratifying job I’ve had thus far. I got to work with a great [Operational Detachment-Alpha] and the teammates I had downrange were incredible.” 

According to Peeler’s award citation, he controlled approximately 114 aircraft and conducted 121 precision strikes, many of which were in danger close range. He said some of his most memorable moments were the ones where his specialized air-ground integration capabilities came into play to keep him and his team safe.

“For one mission I was able to utilize [Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance] overhead to identify an enemy combatant who was planting an [improvised explosive device] on our exfil route, so being able to eliminate that threat before it became a problem later in the day was incredibly helpful for the ground force,” said Peeler.

As a 2015 graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Peeler also mentioned being able to serve downrange with some of his former classmates.

“On several missions, the A-10s flying overhead were classmates of mine from the Academy and as cheesy as it sounds it was pretty cool to know the pilots personally and conduct combat operations together,” said Peeler.

Not only did Peeler prove himself on the battlefield as a JTAC, but also switched halfway through his deployment to lead a Special Tactics team in global access operations in the area of responsibility. His team conducted 15 airfield surveys enabling partner forces as well as served on the response force for a downed aircraft. Towards the end of his time downrange, COVID-19 started creating additional challenges and uncertainty back home extending his team’s deployment by a couple of months.

“Keeping the team motivated was a huge challenge, but you just had to as best as you could, maintain a positive attitude knowing that we were all in it together,” said Peeler. “It was stressful for every single person out there but the guys were able to pull it together and I had a lot of great NCOs helping me as well.”

Following his return from deployment and some well-deserved rest and relaxation time, Peeler was back to the grind at the 23rd STS, again in a critical squadron leadership role contributing to his award. As a flight commander, he was critical to the squadron’s reorganization and pivoting operational priorities towards great power competition. His role was also responsible for leading 104 members, managing a $1.9 million budget, planning of several joint training exercises and maintaining an alert posture for any short-notice contingency operations.

“Following our squadron reorganization, we got the request to go to Honduras after it had been hit by Hurricanes Eta and Iota,” said Peeler. “Our flight was sitting alert at the time, and with luck and timing we got the call to help.”

Peeler served as the mission commander as the 23rd STS was called to augment Joint Task Force-Bravo hurricane relief operations. The Special Tactics team assessed austere airfields for possible humanitarian aid staging areas while engaging with the local populace and military forces. The team’s efforts helped bolster and solidify AFSOC’s relationships with the South American partners. 

“All in all 2020 was a pretty wild year for me,” said Peeler.  “I’m surprised and humbled to see I was selected for this award. To be honest I didn’t even know I was up for consideration for it.”

While timing played a role in Peeler’s busy year, Special Tactics Officers like him are trained to adapt, rapidly respond and lead through combat and contingencies across the spectrum of conflict. Peeler is a certified military free-fall jumper, static-line parachutist, combat diver, and Joint Terminal Attack Controller. He was also awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Air Force Combat Action Medal and is currently pursuing his Master’s in Business Administration at Auburn University. 

“You come across officers like Capt Peeler and the sky is just the limit for them,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jesse Wilson, commander of the 23rd STS. “They’re so intelligent and motivated and capable. They continue to prove how good they are and they blow me away all the time. Just the breadth of experience he’s had in one year to do all these great things for America and for AFSOC, is phenomenal. I couldn’t be more proud of him and his teammates.”  

As Peeler looks forward to celebrating this recognition with his teammates and family, he also reflects on some of the key principles that got him to this point and some advice for potential STO candidates, “Come in with the mentality that you’re never going to quit and give it your all every day.”