I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the silent professionals of the 353rd Special Operations Group and hear his story from the beginning. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to learn the stories of many great Airmen, but my interview with U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kade Bollinger left me feeling humbled by his accomplishments and equally inspired by his humility.
Bollinger’s story begins like many who decide to join the Air Force to see the world. Coming from a small town in South Dakota, his adventures would soon take him to South America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
“My uncle and sister were in the Air Force and when I told them I wanted to see the world, they said I had to be a loadmaster and not to accept anything else,” chuckled Bollinger. “I joined December 2005 and it has been a wild ride ever since. I began my career in combat rescue with the 71st Rescue Squadron and then transitioned to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in 2011, working as a loadmaster on the MC-130P Combat Shadow at Royal Air Force Mildenhall.”
Bollinger was the first loadmaster to become qualified on the MC-130J Commando II at an overseas base and contributed greatly to the 67th Special Operation Squadron’s transition from the Combat Shadow to the Commando II. He served as a liaison with Lockheed Martin and helped establish squadron procedures for the arrival of the MC-130J at RAF Mildenhall.
“I was the only one qualified on the Commando II at that time, so they gave me a little room to build from and today the 67th SOS is a fully qualified MC-130J Commando II squadron,” proudly smiled Bollinger. “Leadership came down and asked who wanted to go to Kadena Air Base to help with the 17th SOS’s transition and I jumped on the opportunity. The squadron was further along in being stood-up, but I was able to bring my knowledge and experience to ease any growing pains.”
The stars aligned at Kadena through the combination of good mentorship, leadership and a growth mindset, where Bollinger volunteered for every opportunity to advance the squadron and himself. He was a member of the first deployment crew to Afghanistan for the newly stood-up MC-130J squadron and returned home with two Air Medals and one Air Force Combat Action Medal.
Bollinger’s recognition continued in 2017 with the Air Force level Brigadier General Ross Hoyt award for the heroic actions of JAKAL 11 following an aircraft mishap and the AFSOC Commander’s Leadership Award, presented to the Airman who provided the greatest contribution to AFSOC in that year.
“I will never forget going to Washington D.C. to accept the Brigadier General Ross Hoyt award at the Air Force Association National Convention and then going to Florida a few weeks later to accept the Commander’s Leadership Award at the Air Commando Association awards banquet,” said Bollinger. “I’m overwhelmed how the Air Commando Association, AFSOC, 353rd SOG leadership and my chief were there to support me and how they included my family. I have been away from home for 12 years and having my family there to share that experience is something I will never forget for the rest of my life.”
Bollinger shared details from the missions that would eventually go into his recognition awards, but he went into greater detail on the people that impacted his career. He explained how every member from the deployment crew to Afghanistan positively shaped his development and how leadership and Air Commandos from the 17th SOS were the best people he had ever encountered in the Air Force.
“I did not get here alone and owe everything to my leadership and mentors who challenged me with opportunities to grow and who cared enough to write award packages for me,” humbly stated Bollinger. “Every flying squadron will say that they are a family, but the 17th SOS truly is a family that cares, respects and pushes people out of their comfort zones to become the best versions of themselves.”
Bollinger was recently handpicked by the AFSOC commander to be nominated for the Senior Leader Enlisted Commissioning Program and chosen by the Under Secretary of the Air Force to go to Officer Training School (OTS) and commission as a second lieutenant. He will be attending OTS this upcoming June.
“I’ve carried the goal of becoming an officer since the beginning of my career. I remember sitting down in the squadron as a young loadmaster and expressing my opinion on a topic when one of our pilot captains stepped in and said, ‘when you have an education, you can enter this conversation.’ I was a small-town country boy with nothing but a high school diploma at that time and I was devastated. That event lit a fire in me to earn my degree and I want to find him and thank him.”
Bollinger has received six Air Medals from deployments to Afghanistan, a single mission Air Medal for actions in an exercise in South Korea, an Aerial Achievement Medal for combat support missions in Africa, a Joint Service Achievement Medal for Operation Morning Glory, an Air Force Combat Action Medal from a combat mission in Afghanistan involving enemy fire and two Air Force Commendation Medals.
“I’ve flown nearly 2,500 hours to include 300 hours in combat,” said Bollinger. “Throughout it all, I still carry one of the mottos from my time in rescue. We’d say, ‘We are getting ready to help out people on their worst day, so we need to give them our best day, they deserve nothing less than that.’ I think it’s important to carry this perspective in the work I do.”
Over the course of his career, he has deployed 324 days and conducted 467 missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. He’s proud of his time in combat rescue, where he was credited with saving the lives of 32 Americans, 34 coalition forces and four Afghan children. His transition to special operations provided him the opportunity to work with men and women of unmatched caliber from all services and nations.
“I will never forget my time as an Air Commando and the missions supporting Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and most recently Asia,” said Bollinger. “I’ve transported 4.3 million pounds of cargo and airdropped 170,000 pounds of equipment in support of SOF missions.”
Bollinger couldn’t discuss the specifics about the missions he’s served on, but proudly acknowledge the tremendous impact SOF plays in protecting and defending our country and allies.
“I’ve loved my 12 years as a loadmaster and I’m getting choked-up just thinking about it because it’s the best thing I’ve done in my life,” said Bollinger. “I wanted to be a loadmaster when I signed the dotted line and there’s no doubt that I’ve lived my dream of seeing the world. I’m about to start over in this new challenge and I want to pay it forward. I’ve been blessed with the amazing leadership I’ve received in my career and will strive to provide the people I serve the same experience.”
Bollinger’s recent recognition with Air Force and major command level awards, along with his selection to commission as an officer speaks to his incredible achievements. Showcasing humility, the silent professional quickly credits all of his accomplishments to his team of support.
“I want to say a special thank you to the men and women I’ve served and flown with, the leadership that allowed me the opportunity to excel and fail, my friends, and most of all my family to include my son Jayce and daughter Ellie,” said Bollinger. “I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Anybody who knows Bollinger would tell you that he doesn’t need public recognition to perform his duties superbly, but just like those people that cared enough to write award packages on his behalf, I also feel compelled to share the story of this great Airman.