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FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Ten 10th Combat Aviation Brigade aviators received medals for valor, for their actions in Afghanistan, during a ceremony Sept. 7 at Fort Drum's Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield. Awardees included two members of a medevac crew -- a pilot and a flight medic -- who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for their extraordinary actions while evacuating 11 wounded personnel over a three-day operation.
On April 26, 2011, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kenneth G. Brodhead, the unit's standardization pilot, and Sgt. Julia A. Bringloe, flight medic, and their crew received a call to evacuate several wounded Soldiers in the Watapur Valley. The mission involved Brodhead and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Erik Sabiston, pilot in command, holding the aircraft in a steady hover so Bringloe could be lowered by hoist, which was operated by Spc. David Capps, crew chief. All are members of C Company Dustoff, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment.
"After reaching the ground, I did a rapid assessment of the patient with leg shrapnel (and) deemed him stable, but with a tourniquet in place, I chose to lift him out on the sked," Bringloe said.
Soon after dropping their patient off at the nearest forward surgical team facility and refueling, the crew received another call.
They flew back to the Watapur Valley with another medevac helicopter in the lead. The lead aircraft made a one-wheeled landing on a qalat but began taking fire. The aircraft would have to return to a nearby base.
As Brodhead and Bringloe's crew waited for enemy fire to be suppressed, they received a call to pick up a Soldier suffering from severe dehydration. This Soldier was preventing his unit from moving to help another unit in contact with the enemy, so the crew asked for and received clearance to pick up the dehydrated Soldier.
Bringloe said there were two things that made this mission one of the most challenging extractions she could imagine.
"One, it was dusk and any daylight was disappearing fast, but it was still too bright to utilize our (night vision goggles)," she said. "Two, they were in a very steep draw surrounded by 80- to 100-foot trees."
Bringloe was lowered to the ground, where she assessed the patient and secured him to the jungle penetrator. As they were brought up by the hoist, about halfway up, Bringloe and her patient began to swing toward a tree.
"I stuck my leg out to cushion the blow and my calf smashed between the metal (jungle penetrator) and the tree," Bringloe said. "I pushed off the tree to swing in the opposite direction to avoid getting tangled in the branches, and soon we cleared the tree tops to start forward flight while Spc. Capps cabled us up."
The patient was taken to a nearby FST facility, the crew refueled, and Bringloe took a look at her leg and washed out the gash on her shin.
The crew then headed back to the Watapur Valley, where ground troops were still taking fire. AH-64 Apaches provided suppressive fire for the medevac extraction.
With Bringloe and Capps guiding him in, Brodhead executed a one-wheeled landing on the qalat.
"Sgt. Bringloe and Spc. Capps expertly guided me into the one tiny area that was suitable for landing," Brodhead said.
As soon as the left wheel touched the roof, Bringloe opened the cabin door and motioned for the casualties, loaded them, and closed the door so they could egress as fast as possible.
"For this entire mission, the ground troops and gunships were providing heavy and effective suppressive fire," Brodhead said. "We later learned that one of the casualties likely would have died if he had not been evacuated when he was."
The following morning, the crew responded to a call to pick up three more Soldiers.
"The mission had to be done fast because of the potential enemy in the area and the high hover my pilots had to execute," Bringloe said. "All three patients were moved without incident, but it took a bit longer since I was trying to facilitate moving their gear with them to free up the Soldiers that remained on the ground. Although it was a difficult place for my pilots to hold a hover, they did it without moving an inch. And Spc. Capps, being new to hoist operations, was really getting the hang of it."
Bringloe assessed her patients and no further en route care was needed. The crew dropped off the patient, refueled and returned to the valley to pick up a Soldier who had twisted his ankle and was preventing his squad from moving from their position.
"Although the injury was not urgent, their situation was," she said. "Elements getting locked into one position was proving to be detrimental to the situation, and we really wanted to prevent that."
The crew spotted the Soldiers below, and Capps lowered Bringloe to them. On the ground, Bringloe secured the patient and herself to the JP. As they were lifted, Bringloe used her feet to kick the JP away from a 20-foot boulder. The crew brought the patient to a nearby base and was forced to shut down for the day to fix a mechanical issue.
"It was frustrating to be so close to clearing the battlefield," Bringloe said.
On the final day of the operation, April 28, 2011, the crew returned to a qalat on which they had made a one-wheel landing two days earlier.
"The qalat was taking effective fire, and weather was moving in with thick cloud layers," she said.
After AH-64 Apache helicopters were able to suppress enemy fire, Bringloe was lowered down to the qalat where she was able to successfully evacuate the casualty. As she prepared to be hoisted back to her aircraft, the troops on the roof with her started yelling and waving her away.
"I heard gunfire coming from the east," she said. "I was taking fire as Spc. Capps cabled me up."
Weather conditions continued to worsen, yet the crew was called upon one last time.
"We flew back to the valley only to find the weather conditions further deteriorating," she said. "We proceeded to cautiously poke our way into any hole in the clouds that we could."
They eventually found an opening, and Bringloe was lowered to the ground once again. As she was cabled back up, she looked up at her aircraft and saw that it was becoming enveloped by clouds.
"I knew my pilots were flying on instruments alone when I saw the tree tops disappear in the clouds," she said.
Brodhead, who has served in the U.S. Army for 26 years, spoke very highly of his crew.
"Without them, you wouldn't be talking to me right now," he said. "Eleven hoists were performed, and three platoons were supplied with desperately needed water and IV fluids. The crew was engaged twice.
"CW2 Sabiston managed this mission load wonderfully. He performed with skills well beyond his years and experience.
"Spc. Capps performed his first through 11th live combat hoist over those two long days. His first hoist was good. His last hoist was great.
"Sgt. Bringloe's accomplishments during Operation Hammer Down were nothing short of heroic. She rode the hoist over and over again without hesitation. She was slammed into a tree and had her leg gouged. She was hurt worse than some of the patients that we were evacuating."
Although the number of women in aviation continues to grow, it remains a predominantly male field.
"I always try to conduct myself as a Soldier, not a female Soldier," Bringloe said. "I hope my efforts show other female Soldiers that if you work hard you can accomplish great things."
Col. David Francis, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade commander, called the actions of the awardees shining examples of what it means to live the Warrior ethos.
"What we didn't hear about is that every one of these Soldiers got up the next day and did it again," Francis said. "And they got up the day after that, and almost every day until the end of their rotation, and did it again until the mission was complete. It's an honor to recognize them today."
Eight aviators were presented Air Medals with Valor during the ceremony. Aviators who received the award were Maj. Richard P. Tucker, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Richard Arnold, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Burton T. Schieffler, Sgt. Phillip K. Vaughn, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Francesco M. Foschetti, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Patrick C. Reape, Sgt. Jason R. Leaders and Sgt. Jonathan L. Stretch.