U.S. servicemembers who helped rescue members of a soccer team who were trapped in a flooded Thai cave last summer are now eligible to receive the Humanitarian Service Medal.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the medal for personnel who participated in Operation Wild Boar, the multinational mission to free the trapped team and its 25-year-old coach from the complex Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Thailand. The Air Force's 320th Special Tactics Squadron, based in Japan, led U.S. efforts on the mission from June 26 to July 14.

“I think everyone that was there while it was going on kind of realized they were involved in something - maybe once-in-a-lifetime,” Air Force Staff Sgt. James Brisbin told Military Officer magazine months after the rescue operation. “People were honored … and they were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”

Brisbin, a search-and-rescue expert with cave-diving skills, was positioned inside the cave to usher the team and coach out. He said he knew it was a risky mission, but never hesitated to help.

Servicemembers who are eligible for the medal must have had direct participation in the mission. Deployment to the area of humanitarian assistance doesn't necessarily constitute entitlement, according to the Defense Department. Military.com outlined the award-eligibility details in a March 5 post.

About 40 Air Force pararescuemen arrived in Thailand on June 28. They worked with Thai special forces to plot several rescue scenarios that would take them through hollow, narrow pathways that were partially underwater.

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The final plan called for each boy to be escorted out by two divers, which would take about three hours to get each child out. Rescuers navigated the dark, winding cave by sometimes having to remove their dive gear to worm through passages.

Former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan died while diving in the cave during the preparation phase. The mission ended after a close call, when the entire team was out, but rescuers were leaving the cave as a water pump broke and a chamber was filling with water.

Amanda Dolasinski is MOAA's staff writer. She can be reached at  amandad@moaa.org . Follow her on Twitter  @AmandaMOAA