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Rapid City leader garners AF Distinguished Public Service Award

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --

A longtime friend of Ellsworth and champion for our nation’s military has received the highest award given to non-Department of Defense civilians.

Alton “Al” Cornella, a civic leader and retired local business owner, received the Air Force Distinguished Public Service Award for advocating for the Air Force, connecting regional and professional communities to the service, and bolstering a better understanding of the nation’s youngest branch of the military whose mission is to fly, fight and win.

Col. Gentry Boswell, commander of the 28th Bomb Wing, officially presented the award to Cornella at a Military Affairs Committee luncheon at Ellsworth March 16 before a crowd of Airmen, Soldiers, family, friends, community leaders and representatives of the state’s political leaders.

“It is a distinct honor to present this award to a leader that has dedicated so much effort and talent to champion both our service and our Airmen and their families,” Boswell said. “Al is a beacon of this community, he has been a key force behind so much of our mutual success and has been instrumental in helping countless individuals - at all levels - understand the vital mission of the Air Force and Ellsworth. This honor recognizes over two decades of devoted service working at the both the local level, and at the highest levels of national leadership with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Secretary of Defense. He has made a profound and lasting positive impact, we are forever grateful and indebted for his service.”

Cornella received the prestigious award specifically for the work he did between 2012 and 2016 as a part of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Civic Leader Group. He was one of 24 business owners, teachers and lawyers from across the nation hand-picked by retired Gen. Mark Welsh III, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, to visit Air Force bases around the globe, communicating with Airmen and assessing needs and conditions. According to the group’s charter, they provide something valuable to the Air Force: perspective.

“I am honored and humbled to receive this medal,” said Cornella, a veteran and member of the Air Force Civic Leader program who has served on a variety of boards and commissions dealing with military and environmental issues. “It’s really been a privilege serving.”

Cornella says that his work as a civil servant comes from a sense of duty inspired by his father, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.  

“I grew up in the 1950s and all of the World War II vets were still young men,” he said. “My dad told me about every vet in our hometown … where they served, things like that. I can still tell you their names, branches of service and where most of them served, from the Pacific to Normandy.”

He recalls walking to school and passing the homes of “Gold Star” families - banners first flown by families during World War I. The flag included a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces. If that loved one died, the blue star was replaced by a gold star.

“The Stockings lost two sons in Europe and the Bird’s son died on a submarine in the Pacific,” Cornella recalled as his eyes reddened. “I realized very early on the price that people have paid to preserve our freedoms.”

The North Dakota native enlisted in the National Guard the day he turned 17, and joined active duty as an electrician in the Navy two years later. During his time in the service he found himself in numerous leadership roles, often in charge of senior ranking sailors. In 1969, after a stint in Vietnam and almost six years in the military, he left the service and returned to South Dakota to marry his fiancé, Mariette.  

During his return back to civilian life, the young veteran learned about refrigeration as part of a military program. Cornella soon started his own commercial refrigeration company in Rapid City, South Dakota, and now, 42 years later, has handed the reins to his eldest son, Scott.

“I’m so proud of him,” Scott said. “He has taught me everything I know about business and I respect him tremendously.”

In addition to raising a family and building and running his own company, Al was heavily involved in the Rapid City and Ellsworth communities. He served as the honorary commander for the 44th Missile Wing and 28th Bomb Wing, chairman of several military-related organizations and currently serves on the South Dakota Board of Military Affairs as well as the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation Board of Directors.

“When somebody asks me which branch of the service I served in, I have to stop and think,” Cornella said. “I always want to say Air Force, and it’s almost a slip. I’ve been around the Air Force for so long and love it so much that I feel like I am part of it.”

 According to his son, Cornella’s love and support of the military have been apparent by his actions.

 “It was clearly evident growing up,” Scott said. “Even though he’s a civilian, he has lived a military lifestyle.”

While Al is now retired and is focused on spending time with his family and six grandchildren, he continues to serve as a meritorious member of the Civic Leader Program and an active member of the South Dakota Board of Military Affairs – continuing the commitment of ensuring the Air Force continues to be the preeminent air, space and cyberspace force in the world.