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Downed F-15 crew on Libya rescue: 'The best feeling'

By Larry Shaughnessy, Pentagon Producer
Maj. Kenneth Harney is welcomed home at RAF Lakenheath, England, on March 26.
Maj. Kenneth Harney is welcomed home at RAF Lakenheath, England, on March 26.
  • Two Air Force fliers went down over Libya on March 21
  • Both were rescued, with the military keeping quiet on details
  • Now, an Air Force video from their welcome-home ceremony provides some of the story
  • "You feel the weight of ... the entire military ... making sure you get home," says one

Washington (CNN) -- For hours on March 21, U.S. Air Force Maj. Kenneth Harney of Lexington, Kentucky, and Capt. Tyler Stark of Littleton, Colorado, were the focus of nearly every U.S. service member in the Mediterranean Sea region. Nearly a dozen aircraft, a platoon of Marines and even Libyan civilians worked to rescue Harney and Stark after their F-15 crashed in eastern Libya.

Most details about the mission, including their names, were a closely held secret by the military. But earlier this month, with little notice, their identities and details of their rescue came out during a welcome-home ceremony at their air base. For the first time, the men spoke publicly to a small group of friends, family and Air Force personnel.

The Air Force public affairs office posted pictures and video of the event on its official website, even after U.S. military public affairs officers involved in Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya told CNN their names would never be made public.

"You feel the weight of not only the Air Force, but the entire military, focusing on you, making sure you get home," Stark said recently in a video prepared by the Air Force.

U.S. still not ready to recognize Libyan opposition

The men were part of a the 48th Fighter Wing normally based at RAF Lakenheath, a Royal Air Force base that has hosted U.S. Air Force units for years in Suffolk, England. But on March 21 they took off from the U.S. air base in Aviano, Italy, in support of the no-fly zone enforcement over Libya.

At some point they ran into trouble.

U.S. F-15 fighter jet crashes in Libya
  • Libya
  • U.S. Air Force

"We soon find ourselves in a situation where we are forced to eject over potentially hostile territory, and over the country of Libya. Something that neither one of us would ever have thought that we'd have to do," Harney, the pilot of the Strike Eagle said.

The Air Force is still trying to figure out why the plane crashed and a post-incident investigation is ongoing, but four days after the crash, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, told reporters that the military was "confident that it is not a result of hostile fire."

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After the ejection, Harney -- "Meso" to his fellow fliers -- and "Mask" Stark became separated. "When you find yourself alone, and you're isolated, in a country where there's hostiles, you are scared," said Harney, a veteran of both the Afghan and Iraq wars.

Stark was found by Libyan civilians who protected him from possible retaliation by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and eventually he was taken safely back to Europe. Details of how he was taken out of Libya have yet to be disclosed.

Harney's rescue came more quickly. He stayed in communications with another F-15 pilot still in the air over Libya. Eventually an MV-22 Osprey carrying Marines who were part of a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, or TRAP, team landed near his position.

"As that back door opened, I see a group of young Marine recon units jump out, and that was probably the best feeling I've ever felt in my entire life," Harney said. He was flown to the USS Kearsarge for a quick medical check then a short time later sent home with Stark to RAF Lakenheath, where friends and family welcomed them with hugs and a rendition of "God Bless America."

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