BAGHDAD - Wounded 1st Infantry Division soldiers got a chance to talk to leaders of the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, for the aviation support they received while they were deployed to Iraq in 2007.
Retired Sgts. Omar Avila and Jay Fain both claim that after being injured on patrols near Baghdad they would have died if not for the flight crews who flew the helicopters which medically evacuated (commonly called medevac) them. About 200 aviators, crew chiefs, fuelers, mechanics and administrative soldiers got to hear firsthand accounts of how what they do on a daily basis saves lives of soldiers on the ground.
“At the end of the day our job is to ensure that our aircraft support the ground force commander and all the soldiers on the ground,” said Col. John Morgan, commander of the CAB. “We are fortunate to have these warriors here to relate to us what our aviation forces mean to the forces on the ground.”
In 2007, both sergeants were assigned to different companies in the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. Patrols in Baghdad and the villages around Iraq’s capital were everyday occurrences for both infantrymen. On May 14, “just like any other day” Avila’s platoon went on patrol.
“This was 10 months into the deployment, and I knew the streets,” said Avila, a Brownsville, Texas, native. “We went over this bump that I had never felt on that road before.”
As he was processing what the bump was a 200-pound deep buried IED went off hitting the back of the truck and rupturing the gas tank sending fuel everywhere.
“The guys behind us said the Humvee went three to five feet up into the air,” Avila said.
Injured and in a burning vehicle Avila manned the .50-caliber machine gun. He said he was only able to get off three rounds at the insurgents before the heat from the fire caused a round in the weapon to explode.
As he started to climb out of the vehicle a hand grenade exploded from the heat and peppered him everywhere. When he got out he was on fire and a Soldier from another vehicle used a fire extinguisher to dose the flames.
“This is where you guys come in. I’m laying there and I hear two Black Hawks coming in,” said Avila, who sustained burns to 75 percent of his body and had a foot amputated. “I thought ‘that is the fastest medevac I have ever witnessed.'”
But these were not medevac helicopters. They were on another mission when they saw the smoke from the burning wreckage and changed their course.
“They turned around and came back to where we were and they saw about 30-40 insurgents strapped with RPGs [rocket propelled grenade launchers], RPKs [a machine gun], AK [assault rifles]… you name it they had it,” Avila said. “The helicopters lit them up and took them all out.
“I still don’t know who the crew was, but, they came in and helped us out a lot.”
With the insurgents taken care of by the flight crew, Avila’s patrol headed back to their base where he and the rest of the guys were medevaced to Baghdad’s Green Zone. Three days later he was in San Antonio, Texas, at Brooke Army Medical Center.
A little over a month later, Fain caught a ride with a convoy to Camp Taji to start his journey stateside for R&R. And like Avila, he knew the route they were taking.
“Our headquarters was at Taji, so I had been on this drive hundreds of time, I knew the route,” said Fain, a native of Columbia, S.C.
He got in the rear Humvee because he knew all the guys in that vehicle and had figured “the first Humvee always gets hit, the last one never does.”
As they were driving down the road he was scanning the countryside outside his window when his vehicle was struck by an explosively formed penetrator.
“And the next thing you know, like that,” Fain said as he snapped his fingers. “I don’t remember hearing the blast, seeing it or feeling it.
“When I came to I realized we had just been hit. I could see the smoke, people yelling. My first reaction was to check on my buddies.”
He then tried to find his weapon which had been between his legs, but couldn’t find it or the door latch in order to open the door and engage the insurgents.
“The reason my weapon wasn’t there was because it had been torn to shreds and the door was destroyed,” said Fain.
“The medic got over there right away and saved my life,” said Fain. “The EFP came up through my hip and went out, but a lot of shrapnel tore through my insides.”
The medic was able to stabilize him enough to get him to the aid station at a nearby base. Fain said, once there he started to have seizures and the doctor knew he had internal bleeding and needed to get to the combat support hospital in the Green Zone immediately. But flying conditions were poor and all aircraft were grounded.
“This is where aviation saved me,” said Fain, who had sustained internal injuries and burns to his body and despite the efforts of his doctors his right leg was amputated. “That Black Hawk crew took off anyway, by himself, without his wingman, to come and get me. To this day I don’t know who it is; I really wish I knew who it was.”
They got him to the hospital where he was taken immediately to surgery. Five days later he joined Avila at Brooke Army Medical Center.
While the doctors helped Avila at Brooke, the Big Red One Society helped his parents. The BRO Society paid to have his parents’ belongings moved from Brownsville to San Antonio so they could be there for him during his recovery. They also paid to have the family’s Brownsville home renovated so it would be wheel chair accessible when he was released.
Although being medevaced was a critical moment in their lives, both know this was not the first time that helicopters played a vital role in them being alive today.
Fain recounted to the CAB soldiers an incident that happened shortly after his unit had arrived in Iraq. They were on patrol and were pinned down by insurgents, who were firing “from every rooftop and every window.” Apache helicopters showed up and opened fire on the buildings.
“I was so relieved when they came,” Fain said. “If they hadn’t come when they did and did what they did, who knows what would have happened. A lot of us could have gotten hurt, or not be alive today.”
“This is why I wanted them to talk to our leaders, and tell us what aviation has meant to them,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Thomson, the CAB’s senior enlisted adviser. “We don’t always get to see, or hear what our actions have accomplished because we are too busy doing what we do.”
“It makes me feel good knowing that we are helping out soldiers by doing our jobs,” said Staff Sgt. David Coody, an aircraft maintainer.
For Anthony Leiding being a medevac pilot he has had several missions where he picked up soldiers wounded in combat. Just as Avila and Fain didn’t know who was flying them to safety, Leiding said that unfortunately he and other medevac crews don’t know the name of the injured they are transporting, or even if the soldier survived after they get them to the hospital.
“Having these guys here lets us know what we are doing is worthwhile,” Leiding said. “It makes me feel good knowing that when we deploy, what we do does impacts people beyond the battlefield. They are able to live healthy, productive lives because of us.”
At the beginning of the year, Avila and Fain returned to the battlefield where they had been injured four years earlier. The wounded 1st Infantry soldiers took part in the Troops First Foundation’s “Operation Proper Exit,” a program aimed at helping wounded warriors find emotional closure.
On this return trip to Iraq, the pair saw changes in the towns and on the streets where they used to patrol.
“When I was there before, I wouldn’t have imaged people being able to walk on those streets like I saw them doing in February,” said Fain. “Flying at night is what really got to me. All of Baghdad was lit up and I actually saw an amusement park with a Ferris wheel going."
“Seeing all the changes made me realize something,” said Fain. “All that work, and all that hurt we went through, and all our boys that died over there was for something, our sacrifices were worthwhile.”