KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Five 33rd Rescue Squadron Airmen were recently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with valor for their heroic actions during a deployment mission in 2012.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presented Capts. Michael Kingry, Gavin Johnson and Matthew Pfarr, Tech. Sgt. Scott Lagerveld and Staff Sgt. Robert Wells with the award Aug. 20 during his visit to Kadena Air Base, Japan. Capts. Matthew Carlisle and John Larson, formerly stationed at Kadena AB, were also awarded the DFC with valor for the mission before permanently changing stations. According to their citations, the members of PEDRO 83 and 84 distinguished themselves by heroism while participating in a two-ship HH-60G Pave Hawk combat rescue mission in Afghanistan, Aug. 4, 2012. On that day, the team demonstrated heroic actions during a seven hour, 320-mile rescue mission under direct enemy gunfire.
According to Pfarr, it wasn't just the mission that was different.
"The whole day started differently," he said. "There's a set time when we'd go preposition all of our gear (each day). We actually got the scramble call during that time. It was a little bit of a strange day."
On a typical day during their deployment to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, Kingry said the team would show up, put their gear on their helicopters, receive update and mission briefs on the current status, and would then be on standby, waiting for the call. "As I put my gear on the aircraft, I was halfway getting all my stuff situated when the call came in," Kingry said. "The call we listen for comes across the radio as 'Attention on the net, attention on the net, scramble, scramble, scramble.' As soon as you hear that scramble call, you know there's somebody out there who's basically in a life or death situation, and we've got to get off the ground as quickly as possible." Two New Zealand coalition forces members had sustained gunshot wounds.
Again the day would prove "strange," as the pickup location was farther than usual and was nestled within a steep mountain range, which the HH-60s could not climb because of the weight of the aircraft. Kingry said he had to first plot a course through valley passes, making the trip longer.
The lead officer, in PEDRO 83, contacted the operations center and requested an HC-130 King for refueling support, realizing the team would need fuel during the extended mission.
"About halfway there we got an update from our operations center that was saying it's now five total patients," Kingry said. "Our understanding was, 'OK, the area is probably still hot, still sustaining casualties. There's an ongoing firefight.' So that definitely led us to step up our game."
The operations center also advised there was a B-1 Lancer providing close air support overhead and gave Kingry the frequencies to contact the aircraft. Kingry said he developed a game plan with the B-1 and JTAC for the team to get in and get the casualties out. As they got closer, they got another update -- the casualty number was now seven.
As the team arrived, they located the patients within a valley flanked by very steep cliffs. Kingry and Pfarr remained overhead to provide watch while PEDRO 84 landed and picked up three patients. Kingry then landed PEDRO 83 in the same spot to pick up the other four before the team left the location. They were too low on fuel, and the patients were too critical for the team to return to Bagram AB. They had to fly to the nearest forward operating base. The operations center notified the FOB to be ready with facilities and gas. Kingry said he landed PEDRO 83 with about 300 pounds of gas, the lowest he'd ever seen. The team had a few moments to reflect on what had happened when another call came in. There were three more casualties at the same site and the site's observation post. The team gassed up and returned to the location. Now covered overhead by an F-16 Fighting Falcon, the team returned to the site. "It was taking a while to package this patient just due to the fact that it was very difficult terrain," Kingry said. "They were under fire, and basically the slope of that terrain made it difficult. It was starting to take more and more time, and we were burning more and more gas. So at that point I instructed my wingman to land at the other site and pick up the remaining patient."
As PEDRO 83 and 84 were picking up their patients, they came under fire. "As we came to a hover over the incident site and started the hoist down, the copilot came on the radio and said, 'Muzzle flashes at 10 o'clock.' I was holding the aircraft in a hover and looked out to my 10 o'clock and basically I saw five or six just bright, flashes of light all aimed at our aircraft," Kingry said. "I immediately started pulling the power in to go around and my first call to the gunner ... was '10 o'clock, 300 meters burst.' I said it again, '10 o'clock, 300 meters burst.' Finally I said 'Shoot 'em; shoot 'em; shoot 'em;' so that he ... just started pouring (50-caliber machine gun rounds) back into their position. "At that point PEDRO 84 was still on the ground ... so I immediately called to them the weapons pattern, that we needed weapons support, and probably the best thing I heard the whole time as we came into the weapons pattern was 'PEDRO 84 calling in hot,'" Kingry said. Kingry said the two aircraft spent about 500 rounds combined covering the area, with Lagerveld and Wells delivering most of the rounds. Though the enemy threat was suppressed, the aircraft were then facing the threat of "bingo" fuel, meaning they had the lowest amount of gas possible to complete the mission, and the pararescuemen were still on the ground with the casualties. Kingry maneuvered PEDRO 83 to pick up the PJs and the casualties, while PEDRO 84 called for the tanker to move as close as possible. Soon after, the tanker met up with the team. The next mission would be to perform helicopter air-to-air refueling, which is done by the tanker aircraft dragging a hose with a small basket behind it, and the receiving pilot directing his aircraft's probe into the basket, Kingry said. "It was high altitude so (the basket) was bouncing around quite a bit," Kingry said. "I remember taking the controls and looking at the fuel gauge and seeing that we had about 300 pounds of fuel. Previously we had landed with 300 pounds, and we were still about 20 to 30 minutes out. We had to get gas or we weren't going to make it back. Luckily for me ... it kind of got calm, the basket just kind of sat there in front of me, (and) I was able to make a run in on the first try and get gas." PEDRO 84 wasn't so lucky. The turbulence returned, and the aircraft failed at a few attempts to connect to the hose. "I could see how much gas they had; I knew that they weren't going to be able to make it back unless they were able to (refuel)," Kingry said. Kingry began discussing a plan to land PEDRO 84, move some of the crew to PEDRO 83 and return to the FOB, but finally Johnson was able to pilot the aircraft and connect to the tanker. "The time that I was most afraid was ... waiting for our wingman to take fuel," Pfarr said. "We were thinking about how to (precautionary land) that aircraft in the middle of Afghanistan, and then PEDRO 83 would have to ferry crew members and patients out of there. That was a very real possibility that we had begun to look at, and fortunately right before we had to make that decision they were able to get the fuel they needed. That was the scaredest I felt during that day." The team returned to the FOB, unloaded their patients and waited for more news before returning to Bagram AB. Reflecting on the day, Pfarr said it was the type of day he expected when joining the Air Force. "That was the type of experience that I expected to have joining the rescue community," Pfarr said. "One of the things I wanted to experience coming to the rescue community was one of those days where I could look back and know that I had done my job well and that I made a difference in people's lives."
Although humbled to receive the award, Kingry said he didn't do anything special.
"I don't think we really did anything extraordinary that anybody else in Air Force rescue wouldn't have done," he said. "I think we just happened to be the guys who were on call at that point. Anybody in our community would have done the exact same thing."
"It's a little strange," he said. "If you were to read our mission statement, all we did was what we were there to do. In that way it's a testament to what our mission is. If that mission had dropped 10 minutes earlier, it would have been the entire other crew. It isn't about the individual; it's for the whole community." Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, the 33rd RQS commander, said he's extremely proud of both crews. "They demonstrated the precise tactical execution, teamwork and warrior spirit that has instilled confidence in ground troops for years in (Operation Enduring Freedom)," Ortiz said. "Confidence to fight the fight knowing that no matter how bad the situation gets, the 'Pedros' were covering their six and would get them out."