News: 4th CAB “Iron Eagles” receive highest aviation honor: For heroic actions under fire, 21 others receive citations for valor
By: Sgt. Sean Harriman
SHINDAND AIR BASE, Afghanistan – During the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 2010, more than 90 Italian and Afghan National Army soldiers sat huddled together on CH-47 Chinooks, preparing themselves for an air assault mission on an objective that had been identified as a potential “insurgent hot bed,” said the air mission commander, Lt. Col. Ronald G. Lukow, the commanding officer of Task Force Comanche, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.
“The aim of the operation was to capture an insurgent leader and insurgent leaders generally operate with their own security,” Lukow said. “We knew that there was potential for the ground unit to get in contact. Looking back at it, though, I don’t think any of us expected that the insurgents could assemble a force as quickly as they did that day.”
The operation resulted in four wounded soldier’s lives being saved, five bullet-riddled aircraft and citations for five Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Air Medals for Valor, two Air Medals and seven Army Commendation Medals for Valor.
The CH-47 Chinooks and UH-60 Black Hawks, carrying their cargo of Italian and ANA troops, began their descent into a remote valley in Afghanistan’s northwestern Badghis province, the air wash of the blades kicking up a veil of dust to blanket the compound, which was already blanketed in darkness.
The time was about 5 a.m. The air assault had begun.
An air weapons team circled steadily overhead, monitoring the progress and ensuring security of the ground forces.
An AWT, normally composed of two AH-64 Apaches, is used primarily to support ground operations and has become more and more necessary for its ability to bypass the mountainous terrain that covers more than half of Afghanistan, as well as its ability to provide an extra pair of eyes, increasing situational awareness and C2 capabilities.
A few hours into the infiltration, the ground forces reported taking fire from a nearby location, but when viewed by the AH-64 Apaches, nothing could be positively identified as a threat, and therefore nothing could be engaged.
“On several occasions, I heard the JTAC [Joint Tactical Augmentation Cell] calling for suppressive fires from Cpt. McKnight because they had elements pinned down and were trying to maneuver them towards the PZ [pickup zone],” Lukow said.
Despite receiving fire from three directions, the AWT made multiple suppressive fire runs in an attempt to create an opportunity for the ground forces to maneuver to the PZ.
After holding for over an hour, all aircraft were running out of fuel and a decision needed to be made to either commit to the extraction by staying on station or by breaking contact to refuel, which would take an hour.
Attempting to convey the urgency of the situation, the JTAC was told that if the ground forces could not reach the PZ within 10 minutes, the aircraft would need refueling.
Shortly thereafter, the ground forces reported that they were in place to be extracted and that the PZ was clear. The CH-47s and UH-60s descended to the PZ amid a cloud of dust and were immediately engaged by enemy forces, receiving fire from multiple directions.
“Once we touched down in the PZ, that was the first time that it hit me that we were really helping these guys out because I could see their faces,” Lukow said. “Later, after we met with the Italians for our after-action review, I sensed what our actions had meant to them.”
Five 4th CAB “Iron Eagles” aviators were recognized with the highest aviation award for their display of heroism, valor and professional resolve, with disregard for their own safety. They exposed themselves to enemy fire and ensured security for the emergency extraction of 91 soldiers, four of whom were wounded in action. For their valorous actions under enemy fire, they received the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross on March 22, 2011, awarded by RC (W) commander Italian Brig. Gen. Giacomo Bellacicco, in a TF Comanche hangar on Shindand Air Base.
“I just believed, as I do now, that when Task Force Comanche inserts our ground brothers on the battlefield, that we take ownership to ensure we get them out, no matter the situation or their condition,” Lukow said.
Lukow, Cpt. Paul McKnight, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Timothy Pool, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Uriah Hayes and Chief Warrant Officer Donald Procter, all of TF Comanche, were the first Soldiers to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for 4th CAB during the Operation Enduring Freedom 10-11 deployment.
The Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight, is the highest aviation honor that can be bestowed on a soldier. Recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross include Charles Lindbergh, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and former president George H. W. Bush.
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