BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, –
On Sept. 21, 2016. Afghanistan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) were operating in Khost Province, when they were pinned down by enemy heavy machine gun fire and facing a maneuvering enemy assault. One of their Soldiers suffered a gunshot wound to the head and required immediate medical evacuation. The ANDSF requested air support to medically evacuate their wounded.
Task Force Gunfighters was tasked to respond.
TF Gunfighters is comprised of 1st Combat Aviation Brigade pilots, crews, and teams from the 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kansas; specifically Alpha Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, ‘Rebels,’ (1-1 ARB); Charlie Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, ‘Dustoff’,’ (2-1 GSAB); as well as augmentation from Charlie Troop, 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment (3-17 CAV), 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia.
The task force mission in Afghanistan is to conduct attack, assault and medical evacuation operations in support of Train, Advise, and Assist Command – East, Special Operating Forces, and ANDSF. They have been in theater since July.
On this day, several of the aviators of Task Force Gunfighters would demonstrate their mettle and fulfill this mission to the fullest.
Capt. Cody Sneed, 2-1 GSAB, and his UH-60 Blackhawk flight crew, DUSTOFF 47, that included Staff Sgt. Trevor Thompson, flight paramedic, and Sgt. Michael Charles, crew chief, were flying minutes away from Forward Operating Base (FOB) Dahlke when he heard the radio traffic about the ongoing fight in Khost.
“We were executing a patient transfer when we were dynamically re-tasked to respond to an urgent nine-line MEDEVAC request,” recalled Sneed. He and his crew had flown about a dozen missions together in Afghanistan.
Sneed coordinated via radio to expedite the patient transfer mission at FOB Dahlke. Minutes after arriving, the DUSTOFF crew safely transferred the patient, refueled the aircraft and departed directly for the injured ANDSF Soldier. As they approached the location they picked up the radio traffic from the 1-1 ARB Attack Weapons Team (AWT) that was then directly supporting the embattled ground forces.
“The pilots were taking the information and the radios were going crazy,” said Charles, “Staff Sgt. Thompson was prepping all the medical gear that he might need for the patient.”
“The main thing going through my head before the pickup was just trying to anticipate the patient we were about to have,” said Thompson, “and start building a plan for treatment based on what we knew.”
As the Gunfighter DUSTOFF aircraft approached, the Apache crews were fully engaged.
“Upon arriving on station, our flight quickly noticed tracer fire in our direction,” said 1st Lt. Robert Mayville, the co-pilot/gunner of the lead AH-64D Apache Longbow. “We identified two enemy personnel with weapons and engaged them with 30mm ammunition, killing them both.”
The AWT continued to secure friendly ground forces as they moved to the planned MEDEVAC site while the DUSTOFF element was en route. Additional enemy tracer fire emerged from an unidentifiable location, according to Mayville.
“We called the LZ ‘Cherry’ to ensure the MEDEVAC aircraft kept away from enemy fires,” said Mayville. The color designation alerted everyone in the mission that the landing zone was not yet secure for the medical evacuation.
The DUSTOFF aircraft were directed to loiter at an altitude of 10,000 feet, a few miles north of the planned helicopter landing zone (HLZ) while the Apaches maneuvered to support the Afghan forces and secure the HLZ.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan Aleshire piloted the lead Apache with Mayville as his co-pilot/gunner. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Timothy Kirschbaum piloted the second with Chief Warrant Officer 2 Craig Plantrich as co-pilot/gunner. (All from Alpha 1-1 ARB except Plantrich who was assigned to 3-17 CAV.)
Aleshire and Kirschbaum were direct combat-tested pilots; for Mayville and Plantrich, this was their first experience with enemy contact.
Both Apache pilots coordinated engagements and evaded enemy fire while the gunners maintained sensor contact with the enemy and monitored Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets to visualize the battle space.
Aleshire and Kirshbaum maneuvered their aircraft to defend the friendly ground forces while they moved their wounded to a new HLZ. Mayville and Plantrich were providing suppressing fires and monitoring the intelligence feeds providing information about enemy fighting positions in the valley.
Aleshire and Kirshbaum flew their formation deeper into the valley.
At this point, the rugged mountainous terrain began to restrict direct communication between the Apache AWT and Khost Air command center. DUSTOFF 47 air mission commander Capt. Sneed realized this challenge and immediately began retransmitting communications to keep the Apache crews in contact with the command and control node.
“Due to enemy contact the intended pick up zone changed three times, and the AWT was moving further into the valley and line-of-sight communications was lost,” said Sneed. “We were holding at a high altitude and began retrans…relaying grid coordinates, friendly and enemy positions, and clearance of fires for a little more than an hour.”
“Friendly unmanned aerial vehicle assets identified the several enemy positions atop a nearby ridge line,” said Mayville. “Through relayed transmissions from Capt. Sneed, we identified the enemy location, destroyed one enemy fighting position, its occupying fighters, and a heavy machine gun.”
When the engagement was complete, the AWT returned to secure an alternate landing zone.
“We were cleared into a hasty HLZ in the middle of a wadi where we found the wounded Afghan Soldier,” said Sneed.
One minute out, red smoke was thrown to mark the hasty HLZ. DUSTOFF 47 landed and Thompson dismounted and ran to the patient. Charles provided ground security.
“We landed in a riverbed,” said Thompson. “The patient had been shot in the head. It was a very fast transfer to our aircraft and we departed immediately for Chapman Theater Hospital.”
“The AWT returned to known enemy locations to maintain enemy contact and ensure aerial security throughout the MEDEVAC,” said Mayville. “We reconnoitered the area for some time. After the MEDEVAC returned the casualty to base, we did the same. Thankfully, the wounded Soldier survived.”
“Staff Sgt. Thompson and Sgt. Charles worked seamlessly together to start lifesaving interventions for the 10 to 15 minutes flight to the hospital,” noted Sneed. “Undoubtedly, this saved that Soldier’s life.”
“These Soldiers and Officers are true heroes,” said Lt. Col. Travis Habhab, TF Gunfighter commander. “They put their lives on the line to keep coalition and Afghan forces safe while destroying insurgent elements.”
On the day of this mission, the Apache and MEDEVAC crew members launched into a complex situation,” Habhab continued. “They exercised superb tactical patience and decision making while working with the ground forces.”
For distinguishing themselves by exceptionally meritorious achievement in aerial combat flights, the pilots and crew members of the Apache AWT and DUSTOFF 47 were awarded The Air Medal.
“There is no other team I would rather fly with in combat than the one I have here with me now,” said Sneed.
On Dec. 18, 2016, Gen. Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, and Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey presented the medals to Sneed, Mayville, Thompson, and Charles at a ceremony held at the U.S. Forces Afghanistan headquarters at Bagram Airfield. The awards for Kirshbaum, Aleshire, and Plantrich were presented at a later time.
“I honestly felt that it would be a once in a career moment,” said Charles upon learning the CSA and SMA would present his medal. “Knowing that made it a very special thing.”
“The privilege of meeting them personally was quite an honor,” remarked Mayville.
“We were simply doing our jobs,” said Thompson, “Anyone else assigned with this mission set would have done the same. I did feel a sense of pride that the highest levels of Army leadership were recognizing not just the team here, but the excellent job that the fine folks of Army DUSTOFF are doing throughout the theater of operations.”
“All of these Soldiers represented Task Force Gunfighters and the United States Army with pride,” said Habhab. “They are absolutely committed to doing everything they can to provide outstanding support to the Soldiers and improve the security of Afghanistan.”