BALTIMORE -- Two pilots from the Maryland Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Squadron were recently awarded one of the Air Force's highest awards for actions in combat.
Lt. Col. Paul C. Zurkowski and Maj. Christopher D. Cisneros received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor during a ceremony at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Md., Dec. 8, for their efforts and actions during an engagement in Afghanistan that allowed 90 Soldiers on the ground to live to fight another day.
It started with troops in contact with the enemy and worsening weather conditions. Zurkowski and Cisneros, both A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots, were called into the fight and they remained on-station providing close-air support for the troops on the ground engaged in the ongoing fire fight.
"I saw tracer fire and I knew I was getting shot at, but I went right back into supporting the ground troops," said Zurkowski, the squadron commander. "I turned away from the ground fire and got right back into providing fire support,"
Zurkowski said he concentrated 30 mm cannon fire along a ridgeline to the north of the ground troop's location while Cisneros, his wingman, refueled from an orbiting KC-135 Stratotanker.
"Starting on the fourth pass, Cisneros was eight minutes away from the target area," Zurkowski said. "At this point, I am out of ammunition and I am below bingo fuel (a level of fuel where the pilot must return to base). I am not going to make it to the tanker. I inform the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) on the ground that it will be about seven minutes until there is another A-10 on station. So there is a break in coverage."
Seven minutes in a fierce firefight is a long time to the ground troops.
"This is an eternity," Zurkowski said. "I tried to get as much information to Cisneros as I handed off the target area to him."
Full Tank, Plenty of Ammo
"I got a brief hand-off," said Cisneros, adding that he heard the JTAC on the radio.
"It sounded like he needed help right away," Cisneros said. "I explained to him about the weather."
Cisneros said he still needed to navigate around weather and terrain to get back to the target area, adding that the call for 'ordnance right away' has to be balanced with the safety of the coalition troops in contact with the enemy.
"We want to find the friendlies," Cisneros said. "I had a difficult time seeing the friendlies because of the weather. There were lightning strikes and these guys really needed my assistance. But, anytime you employ ordnance you are concerned where friendly versus enemy positions are."
But, he said he understood the need for urgency.
"They were under fire and I needed to employ my 30 mm (cannon)," he said. "As I checked in with the JTAC, I got the vibe that they wanted to make sure I employ (weapons) ASAP on the enemy."
That was made more difficult as it seemed the coalition forces on the ground were almost too busy to communicate with those in the air, Cisneros said.
"They were under too much fire to make corrections (to the attacks he executed)," he said. "Eventually two other A-10s joined the fight. We were able to execute coordinated 30 mm attacks to neutralize the enemy and provide cover to HH-60 Pave Hawk casualty evacuation helicopters."
Cisneros said he remembers a conversation with one of the JTACs who was taking direct fire.
"'I'm shot,'" Cisneros said the JTAC told him over the radio. "I'm handing the radio over to someone else."
Cisneros said he knew at that point that the engagement meant "danger close" missions, where ordnance is dropped very close to friendly positions.
"(It was) danger close -- you could tell by his voice we hit the right target," Cisneros said.
In the end, coalition forces emerged without loss of life.
"They got all 90 of the coalition (members out)," Cisneros said. "The wounded were airlifted to nearby medical treatment facilities."
"It was definitely the most challenging mission I've flown," Cisneros said.
"You saved a lot of lives"
"I landed at Bagram (Airfield) and had maintenance look the plane over for battle damage," Zurkowski said. "That is when they found the two bullet holes in the airplane ... I knew I had been shot at, but I didn't know I had been hit."
The next day the two pilots visited the wounded JTACs in the Bagram hospital. Cisneros recalled a JTAC asking "'Are you the A-10 (pilots) that stayed when the weather got really bad?'"
When the two Thunderbolt drivers responded that they were, the JTAC said, "Brilliant! You saved a lot of lives," Cisneros said.
"For an A-10 pilot there is no greater satisfaction then to meet the guys you helped that day and hear them say 'You are the reason I am alive today," he said.