Staff Sgt. Wilson Gardner gets a little nervous when he walks into restaurants these days.
People have a habit of choking when he is around, but fortunately for them, he knows what to do. Twice last year he saved lives by performing the Heimlich maneuver on choking victims.
"I chew my food a lot more now, that's for sure," Gardner said.
His actions were among the reasons he was recently named one of the 2018 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year out of nearly a half million in the Air Force and Air National Guard.
Gardner is an airfield systems technician in the 202nd Engineering Installation Squadron of the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base. The wing operates the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or J-STARS, along with the 461st Air Control Wing. Gardner's unit is responsible for setting up a wide range of communications capabilities in varying locations.
The first time he came to a choking victim's rescue was April 5, 2017, at a Cracker Barrel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Gardner, a senior airman at the time, was in the area for training. He was with two other airmen when one of them noticed that a woman at a table next to them appeared to be choking. A waitress tried to perform the Heimlich but the woman was in a wheelchair and the waitress was struggling. The other airmen then stood the victim up while Gardner got behind her and performed the maneuver, and he was able to clear the obstruction.
Although he had been trained in performing the Heimlich, he admitted having some hesitation about doing it.
"It’s nerve wracking," he said. "You are not sure if you know the right thing to do, but the main thing I learned from that experience is that it’s better to act and try to help than to not. I’m definitely glad that I did get involved."
In December, shortly before Christmas, Gardner was in Nebraska, and again was with two other airmen in a Texas Roadhouse when they noticed a man choking. The man was at a table with his family but no one seemed to know what to do. This time Gardner didn't hesitate. He immediately went to the victim and performed the Heimlich, and a piece of steak popped out onto the table.
"His whole family thanked me," Gardner said.
Before he was selected at one of the 12 top airmen in the Air Force, he was named the top airman in all of the Air National Guard. He got that news after someone told him that Maj. Gen. Joe Jarrard, the adjutant general of the Georgia Air National Guard, wanted to talk to Gardner.
Gardner's penchant for saving lives isn't the only reason he got the top airman honor.
"He is an outstanding airman, very meticulous in what he does day in an day out," said Lt. Col. Kenneth Billings, his commanding officer. "He is outstanding young man, a very hard worker, and is always there to volunteer to do get what needs to be done."
His award nomination also cited numerous community volunteer efforts despite a busy work schedule. He also deployed to Puerto Rico as a part of hurricane relief efforts. In the award selection, each of 36 major commands summits a top airman, and then the 12 are picked from those. Gardner was the Air National Guard's representative.
He is a part-time guardsman but is currently working full-time in the unit and will soon make his first overseas deployment, heading to the Middle East.