Two Special Warfare Training Wing Airmen earn 2020 AFSPECWAR awards

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  • By Mr. Nicholas J. De La Pena
  • Special Warfare Training Wing

Two Special Warfare Training Wing Airmen receive 2020 Air Force Special Warfare awards, a first in the history of the SWTW, during a ceremony held at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C, Sept. 17, 2021.

U.S. Air Force Capt Hopkins, 351st Special Warfare Training Squadron, Instructor Flight commander and Chief Combat Rescue Officer (CRO) instructor, earned the USAF Special Warfare Instructor Company Grade Officer of the Year and Master Sgt. Rylan Neely, 350th SWTS, Preparatory Course superintendent received the USAF SW Combat Controller (CCT) Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.

The awards recognize Hopkins and Neely for their outstanding achievement from January 1 to December 31, 2020.
Hopkins led a flight of 21 Pararescue Instructors, oversaw the training of 161 Pararescue (PJ) and CRO students over 217 days of training, and executed a $4 million training budget.

“It’s an honor to be selected for this award,” said Hopkins. “My 351st SWTS teammates and I strive to build the best training for all PJ and CROs that will ultimately support Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) missions.”

“As an instructor staff, we continually push to have realistic, effective training. We’re maintaining the historically high standard which has been the foundation of success for Pararescuemen for decades. Our direct customers are the operational units who receive our new graduates, but we always keep in mind that our final customer is an Isolated Person (IP) having one of their worst days. Our training keeps that IP in the forefront of our minds and lays the foundation for USAF Pararescue teams which are capable of operations ranging from low to high-intensity conflict,” Hopkins said.

The 351st SWTS is nearing completion of a $10 million weapons range that will provide Air Force Special Warfare trainees with realistic combat training for decades to come.

“Securing AFSPECWAR’s most advanced weapons facility ensures that basic combat skills are learned realistically, thoroughly, and efficiently. This range increases our training efficiency by leveraging emerging technology, ultimately giving PJs and CROs an edge in future conflicts,” said Hopkins.

Neely transitioned from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron on Sept. 6, 2019, was promoted to master sergeant in early 2021, and now serves as the 350th SWTS, SW Preparatory Course superintendent; managing over 65 personnel with an annual budget of $7.5 million.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Neely. “I feel very humbled to be considered Combat Controller of the Year with heroes like Master Sgt. Ismael Villegas [who was] awarded two Silver Stars and Medal of Honor recipient, Master Sgt. John Chapman, as company within the career field.”

Col. Mason Dula, SWTW commander, says both Hopkins and Neely epitomize the caliber of Airmen the SWTW strives to build and train.

“We are incredibly proud of Hopkins and Neely’s accomplishments, they are highly capable and adaptive teammates that bring innovative ideas to the wing,” said Dula. “Both of our winners make the people around them better and embody the qualities that demonstrate value in diversity of thought, ingenuity, and initiative which is paramount to the success of the SW training mission.”

Neely has met every single Special Warfare non-prior service candidate for the past two years and says he’s grateful for the connections and proud of the opportunity he’s been afforded.

“Here [SW Prep], is a different ballgame because I'm affecting 1,400 lives every year,” Neely noted. “I have been given the chance to be involved in the Special Warfare Operator Enlisted Vector Process. It’s a large program that’s opened up my aperture for managing personnel and facility decisions.”

Neely says he’s humbled by the award and attributes his success to his fellow CCTs that trained him, his leadership, and his family, whom without, could not be the man he is today.

“The teammates that make up the CCT career field are being asked to do things because of their competency, their capability, and who they are as people. They have something that is a building block for what SW is.”

Learn more about U.S. Air Force Special Warfare career opportunities, at:

*Name(s) have been omitted from this story due to operational security purposes.