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386th ECES Airman wins USO Service Member of the Year

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Dalton Williams, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs Office

A firefighter’s will power can’t be weak or prone to dissuasion–the opposite is needed. When the fire is blazing and people are running away, the strong-willed firefighter runs toward the danger. Determination fills their veins

For one Air Force firefighter, this determination has been part of his DNA since childhood and was foundational to saving lives and shedding more than 90 pounds just so he could join.

A firefighter with the 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron and a guard member out of the 190th Air Refueling Wing at Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Topeka, Kansas, it’s Staff Sgt. Nicholas Tafanelli’s determination and grit that recently led him to be recognized as one of the United Service Organization’s service members of the year. This award recognizes those who performed extraordinary acts of bravery that exemplify the values of the Armed Forces and the USO. Saving countless lives with his engine company as they answered call after call, Tafanelli responded to 318 emergencies, including 61 fires and 128 medical calls including motor vehicle accidents.

For Tafanelli, being able to come together as a team and save someone’s life day-in and day-out is what makes it all worth it.

“I’m very honored, but I don’t think I deserve it,” said Tafanelli. “Looking back, I just want to think that all of those calls we responded to made a small difference to those people.”

Tafanelli’s presence is also felt, even in the smallest of ways. Whether it’s a hand passing someone a wrench as they’re working on a fire engine or the sound of laughter just down the hall in the fire station, you always know when he’s around. You would also never know the journey he had to take to be where he is today.

“Ever since I was a little kid, there was just something about being a firefighter to me,” said Tafanelli. “I would see firefighters at the store and I would idolize them. I've always wanted to help people and make a difference wherever I can.”

Deciding to pursue his calling and enlist as a firefighter in the Air Force, he found out he needed to lose 60 pounds to meet the weight requirement to enlist. Day and night, Tafanelli got to work.

“I had to change everything. I had to change my whole lifestyle,” said Tafanelli. “I had multiple people telling me that maybe the Air Force wasn’t for me. I had people telling me that I should just quit.”

The finish line now within his grasp, he was processing through his local Military Entrance Processing Station where he found out he needed to lose another 30 pounds.

“He went through hell to get in. Ever since he had to turn that switch on and say ‘I’m going to get in the military,’ it’s been full steam ahead,” said Master Sgt. Colton Hoffman, 386th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department assistant chief of training. “He’s made his own path.”

At the very core of Tafanelli is a calling to serve others. Sometimes that service is in the form of saving lives, and sometimes that service is through encouraging others to be their best. He is driven to pay forward everything he’s learned in his journey.

“My thing is that ‘discipline equals freedom,’ which means by doing what needs to be done, it’s going to open doors and give you that freedom,” said Tafanelli. “At the end of the day, I want those around me to always reach their potential. A lot of people took time out of their life to help me do that, and I’m always trying to pass that on.”

By using the experiences he’s learned from those around him at the 190th ARW, Topeka Fire Department and his mentors, Tafanelli has created new training plans such as new fire attack strategies and ladder carrying tactics.

“He is an absolute game changer for us,” said Hoffman. “He’s one of the highest performers we have and he always comes in with new training ideas and new plans he wants to implement. He brings a wealth of knowledge and his drive is pretty infectious. It’s an absolute net positive having him on the team. It really is.”