MADISON, Wis. --
Excited, honored, humbled, proud and surprised.
Those were the reactions of the five Wisconsin Air National Guard members - three from Madison's 115th Fighter Wing and two from Milwaukee's 128th Air Refueling Wing - who just learned that they made the grade as the Wisconsin Air National Guard's Airmen of the Year.
This year's winners - Airman 1st Class Patrick Soderlund of West De Pere, Wis., 115th FW; Tech. Sgt. Michelle Marrero of Streator, Ill., 128th ARW; Master Sgt. Jason Kasten of DeForest, Wis., 115th FW; Senior Master Sgt. Martha Irizarry of Lake in the Hills, Ill., 115th FW; and Senior Master Sgt. Craig Nienas of Elkhorn, Wis., 128th ARW - first were selected as Airman of the Quarter at their respective units before they could compete for the state's Airman of the Year award.
The designation "Airman of the Year" is significant to the recipients.
"It means that the time and hard work I have put into my duties and tasks has shown my supervisors and peers that I am motivated and dedicated," Soderlund, a crew chief at the 115th, said.
Irizarry, the Airman of the Year winner in the First Sergeant category, sees the award as validation that she's doing her job and doing it well.
"It means others think highly of my accomplishments and abilities," she said.
The winners represent a broad range of experience and skill. One has served in the Air Force for more than 30 years while another has only been a member of the Wisconsin Air National Guard for a mere 17 months.
Kasten, the Airman of the Year winner in the Senior NCO category, said the quality of his competitors made the designation special.
"It is an honor when you consider how many great senior NCOs are in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and all of the great things they do," he said.
The candidates competed in one of five categories: Airman (E1 to E4), NCO (E5 to E6), Senior NCO (E7 to E9), First Sergeant and Honor Guard Member of the Year. Cullen, along with the four other command chief master sergeants of the Wisconsin Air Guard, sat on the judging panel and made the final selection. Wisconsin Air National Guard Command Chief Greg Cullen said choosing one candidate over another was not an easy task.
"In some cases, the margin between the winner and the runner up was razor thin," he said.
The selection process began at the nominee's home unit when an Airman's supervisor submits an award nomination with bullet statements listing the nominee's skills, qualifications and accomplishments.
The nominees are graded in three categories: leadership/primary job abilities; self improvement; and base/community involvement. Cullen noted that there isn't one specific category that could tips the scales, favorably or otherwise, in a candidate's favor.
"The whole nomination document is looked at," he explained.
Each unit conducts a board of the nominated Airmen - a formal process somewhat similar to a job interview - to assess their knowledge, professionalism and composure.
Cullen said this competition serves as a motivational tool while also recognizing excellent Airmen.
For Marrero, the Airman of the Year winner in the NCO category, the award was icing on the cake.
"It is a great feeling to be awarded for the work that you love doing," she said.
Cullen also offered words of encouragement to the runners up.
"Keep doing what you're doing," he said. "You didn't do anything wrong - it's just that the person that beat you out this time was just a couple points ahead."
Wisconsin's Air National Guard Airmen of the Year winners will next compete against Airmen of the Year winners from other states. The selection board for the national awards will be held Feb. 27, with winners announced shortly thereafter.
And while the winners are grateful for the recognition, they see no reason to rest on their laurels or ease up on the throttle and coast.
"My work does not stop here," Nienas said. "My goal is to set an example for our entire 128th Honor Guard team so another worthy member can receive this award next year."
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