A split second after a two-man rescue team touched ground, the ear-shattering explosions of rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, rang out overhead.
Capt. Koa Bailey and Master Sgt. Roger Sparks, a combat rescue officer and pararescueman from Alaska's 212th Rescue Squadron, rushed to triage causalities strewn across a nearby ravine as bullets pierced through the air.
"You could feel the concussion from the RPGs while we sat in the hover," said Staff Sgt. Brandon Hill, a flight engineer with Kadena's 33rd Rescue Squadron. "The whole time we were being shot at."
U.S. forces on the ground and in the air immediately returned fire, covering the two-man team as they moved to attend the wounded and dying.
As the two landed, Hill exhaled, relieved.
"Once the Js (jumpers) got on the ground and I saw them moving, I knew everything would be alright," the Ozark, Ala., native said.
Hill and the airmen of the 33rd Rescue Squadron remember that day in Afghanistan as being one of the more beautiful; a sunny afternoon with clear blue skies and uncharacteristically warm weather for mid-November mountains.
Fatigued and worn from the demands of a high-ops tempo, the crews of HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue flights Pedro 83 and 84 prepared for another day on the job - lacing up their boots, grabbing a bite to eat, checking equipment, and waiting for the call.
They received that call on Nov. 14, 2010. It marked the third day of Operation Bulldog Bite, a joint-bilateral effort set in motion to eliminate al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Kunar Province's Watapur Valley. Units on the ground met with persistent opposition from enemy fighters during search and cordon missions.
'They were expecting a lot of resistance," said Capt. Gabriel Brown, the downrange operations director for the deployed unit. "The Kunar Valley has several outlets to Pakistan. It's very common for foreign fighters to come through those valleys, especially during the summer and fall months when they're not closed due to snow. This was their one last push before winter."
The 33rd had been tasked to provide medical and casualty evacuation, or CASEVAC, support for ground operations while deployed to Afghanistan. Brown said he can recall the unsettling feeling he had the day his team was called to assist the Alpha Company of the Army's 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
"I had a gut feeling it was going to come to us," he said.
His instinct led him to preemptively ensure he and his men were ready and cleared to fly within a moment's notice, a precaution that paid off when they received the CASEVAC call from Alpha Company.
Within minutes of receiving the call for two wounded soldiers, Capt. Marcus Maris, the flight lead and pilot for Pedro 83, and his team launched both helos, establishing on-scene overwatch of the battlefield. Despite their rapid response, intensified RPG and machine gun fire, interlocking enemy fields, and a steep rocky terrain forced Alpha Company into a defensive position, leading to a total of 11 casualties.
Unrelenting enemy fire coupled with Alpha Company's depleting ammunition and increasing casualties made establishing a clear landing zone and protective cover for CASEVAC near impossible. The rescue mission quickly became a dangerous race against the clock.
"We knew based on the situation and the severity of the injuries, if we waited any longer, the risk of more U.S. casualties expiring would increase exponentially," explained Maris of Raleigh, N.C. "We devised a game plan and committed."
The two aircrews stood up a risky but offensive position that allowed them to suppress enemy aggression while hoisting down Bailey and Sparks to assess the situation on the ground and set up a small triage area. Tech. Sgt. Mike Welles, the chalk two aerial gunner for Pedro 84, remembers the moment enemy forces focused their attention on the rescue teams.
"I remember looking at them (Pedro 83) in the hover and looking at their gunner engaging. I could see a three-foot flame of discontent coming out of his gun. I followed where the rounds were going and could tell they were under our aircraft," the Warner Robins, Georgia native said. "As soon as you can hear your .50-cal on the other side of the aircraft go off, it's a good feeling."
For the next two hours, Pedro 83 rotated through to a forward refuel and armament point, dropping "speedball" water and ammunition pouches to the remaining Alpha Company soldiers. By the end of the fight, both teams had resupplied the remaining soldiers, completed multiple pararescue insertions and patient extractions, saving the lives of seven wounded soldiers and sending home with honor the remains of four heroes who passed that day.
"The people we're going to pick up, fellow Americans, are what it's all about," said Capt. Thomas Stengl, the co-pilot for Pedro 84. "At the end of the day, we will do whatever it takes to bring them home," he added.
The four-hour struggle between Taliban insurgents, the brave men of Alpha Company, and the rescue crews of Pedro 83 and 84 is remembered as one of the deadliest incidents of Operation Bulldog Bite. Even so, it played a pivotal role in a lethal blow to insurgent activity along the Pakistan border, leading to the seizure of several weapons caches. Maj. Gen. John Campbell, 101st Airborne Division commanding general, reported more than 50 enemy fighters were killed throughout the operation, the bulk of which occurred on the clear skied afternoon of Nov. 14.
For their heroism and valiant efforts, the 33rd RQS is being recognized as the recipients of the Jolly Green Association Rescue Mission of the Year Award. This marks the third year in a row that the rescue squadron has claimed the award.
The award and the mission it recognizes hold significant meaning for the rescue squadron.
"It's a testament to the men and women of the 33rd," Welles said. "Everyday you know you're walking the halls with heroes."
"It's a great honor anytime your peers and those who came before you recognize you for your efforts," Maris added. "There's no mission more noble - saving one of your brothers and sisters in arms, removing them from harm's way, and bringing them the care they need for them to go home, to fight another day, to live another day."
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