Capt. Trevor P. Joseph, 1st. Lt. Aaron P. Cruz, Sgt. Loran M. Lott, and Spc. Samuel E. Perez were awarded The Air Medal with ‘V’ Device for valor. Cruz is a Waynesville native.
Since the Vietnam War and before, brave Soldiers have descended from the sky for a chance to provide life-saving help to the warrior wounded in the midst of battle. During the pitch dark early morning hours one day last Fall, a team of Fighting Eagles risked everything to once again try to be those angels in the greatest moment of need.
Just after midnight, Nov. 3, 2016, the helicopter medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) crews at Camp Pamir were notified of an impending point-of-injury mission to rescue several U.S. and Afghan casualties wounded during a fire fight in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Two crews, identified by their call signs DUSTOFF 62 and DUSTOFF 66, stood ready to launch.
The intensity of the on-going battle prevented the ground forces from sending critical information about the medical conditions of the wounded; a process currently called a nine-line MEDEVAC request. Launching the right crews, with the right equipment, a secure place to land the helicopter, and the right medical supplies are of the utmost importance to ensure the greatest possibility of saving the lives of the wounded.
The crews of DUSTOFF 62 and DUSTOFF 66 maintained a ready posture to launch at a second’s notice with their engines running. Air mission commander of DUSTOFF 62, U.S. Army Capt. Trevor Joseph, soon began to think of fuel. He knew the aircraft need enough fuel to get to the battlefield, enough to orbit long enough to allow the helicopter landing zone (HLZ) to be secured for the medical evacuation, but not too much that the aircraft could not transport every wounded Soldier who needed to fly. He thoughtfully and deliberately devised a method for both aircraft to refuel while maintaining their ready-to-fly posture.
“We were waiting because the friendly forces were so pinned down in the town and they couldn’t get to any kind of LZ. It was probably about two hours before we could take off and go,” explained Joseph.
“We knew there were about five critical casualties, all with gunshot wounds,” he added, “we didn’t know any nationalities, or the disposition of how bad off they were, just that they were casualties with gunshot wounds.”
“We were just sitting there ready to go. Everyone was mentally preparing for what could happen,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Aaron Cruz, pilot-on-controls for DUSTOFF 62.
“The situation seemed too fluid there and we could launch at any moment,” Joseph continued. “When we got to about an hours-worth of gas left on board and nothing had been called for the ‘nine-line’ to launch, and to make sure we had enough fuel for whatever station time we might need. We repositioned to hot refuel.”
Only DUSTOFF 62 was able to fully refuel, DUSTOFF 66 had complications that delayed refueling when the nine-line arrived. The two aircraft launched with the lead aircraft, DUSTOFF 66, holding just under a half tank of fuel, according to Joseph.
“When we repositioned to get fuel, the chase aircraft [DUSTOFF 62] took Pad 1 and we hooked up to fuel,” according to U.S. Army Spc. Samuel Perez, DUSTOFF 62 crew chief. “The lead aircraft had a little trouble when they were coming in to land. So by the time we got the launch approval, we were fueling up at the time. We just got enough but because of the delay the other aircraft wasn’t able to get a full load.”
En route, Capt. Joseph learned the HLZ was under intense enemy fire and the ground forces were going to have to relocate for the MEDEVAC ‘birds’ to land. Joseph ordered his crews to orbit southeast of the battlefield.
“They were taking so much fire, we could see it happening. We stayed a few miles off just waiting for them to call to bring us inbound,” said Joseph.
After about an hour of orbiting, DUSTOFF 66 became fuel critical and Joseph requested DUSTOFF 67 to launch. Upon their inflight linkup, DUSTOFF 66 returned to base. This predicated a lead aircraft change, according to Joseph. Air mission commander Capt. Joseph and DUSTOFF 62, fully abreast of the developing situation, assumed lead. DUSTOFF 67 assumed the ‘chase’ supporting role.
The teams were then notified the new HLZ was more challenging and would only allow one aircraft to land.
DUSTOFF 62, piloted by Lt. Cruz, immediately turned inbound and flew at maximum aircraft power to the new HLZ. DUSTOFF 67 remained in an orbit nearby.
“I’m on the controls. I pull in as much power as the aircraft will give me,” said Cruz. “I nosed it over and we head straight for the LZ. Short final, Capt. Joseph calls for the ISR platform (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) to ‘sparkle’ the LZ.”
“We notice the IR [Infrared] in a small, open field,” Cruz continued. “I line the aircraft up and we are getting ready to land when Capt. Joseph notices the ground forces IR laser at a different location.”
“When we were coming in I noticed we were getting signaled by the actual ground unit in a different location than the aerial markings,” noted Joseph. “I went ahead and took the controls because it was out my side of the doors that I noticed them and went ahead and executed the landing into that confined, dusty LZ.”
As the aircraft descended, the rotor wash stirred heavy dust all about the landing zone. Perez continuously watched and relayed critical information to pilots Joseph and Cruz. This HLZ was not optimal – later they would describe it as a ‘non-standard LZ’ that contained just enough space for a helicopter to land. With Perez’s eyes and relayed information, Joseph affected the necessary adjustments to land within 10 meters of the casualties.
“The way they picked it, it was a good field for us, but it had some walls in it…these two-foot walls like you see in their farms that separate their fields and there were some houses,” explained Joseph. “There was no way could have gotten two aircraft in there. We would have been separated, one would have had to land way back from where we landed.”
“Me and Sgt. Lott, in the back, are talking about our plan once we get down,” continued Perez. “I’m going to throw open the right door. He’ll get out and triage the patients, who’s going to get on first, how we’re going to load them, and then what we are each going to do once the patients are on board.”
Within 30 seconds after landing, DUSTOFF 62 and its crew came under direct enemy fire from a building and a nearby tree line. The Joint Tactical Air Controller attempted to contact DUSTOFF 62 several times to advise them to depart the HLZ due to the amount of enemy fire coming from multiple locations across the battle space.
Trevor Joseph and Aaron Cruz remained as calm and collected as possible and continuously called out observed enemy locations and relayed orders to the other crew members; Perez and flight paramedic, U.S. Army Sgt. Loran Lott.
Seconds after touchdown, Sgt. Lott and Spc. Perez had exited the aircraft – Lott moving directly to the casualty collection point, Perez establishing ground security for Lott and the aircraft.
“I got off with my rifle. I was there to protect Sgt. Lott. He did not take his M4 with him so he could pick up the patients and get them on as quickly as possible and not have to worry about his weapon being in the way or possibly hurting the patients even more,” said Perez.
“Perez is our security and kind of crowd control. He moves back and forth from pilot’s window to the door on the side I’m on,” said Lott. “He’s essentially there to watch my back and make sure nothing bad happens to me.”
“I was constantly scanning to make sure everything was alright; that nothing happened to Sgt. Lott or the aircraft,” recalled Perez. “One of the pilots has to be on the controls, one has to be on the radios, and both are scanning for trouble too. While we are on the ground, we are a big target to hit.”
Lott immediately conferred with the ground medics to determine the most severely wounded and who must be loaded first.
“I used their professional opinion as medics to give me the ones that they knew we could at least have a chance to save. That weren’t already expired,” said Lott, “…and we did.”
The landing zone became chaotic and confused, as some Afghan Soldiers mistook the arriving aircraft as a mission to relocate them from the death and destruction that surrounded them. Perez and other ground force Soldiers had to forcibly maintain order and clear the way for the most severely wounded to be loaded onto the aircraft.
“As I was getting off, people were running past me. I had never been in a situation like that.” said Lott. “I didn’t think twice about it. I just thought it was more security.”
There was no lull in the enemy fire landing around DUSTOFF 62 and this effort to save lives.
“We could see tracer rounds from the tree line at our 12 o’clock. We could see tracer rounds from a building at our 1 o’clock. We could see rounds kicking up, probably about 10 meters off our disk [the diameter of the spinning rotor],” said Cruz.
“It was pretty hectic. I didn’t have ‘comms’ with Sgt. Lott. We couldn’t communicate on which patients to let on, and which patients to not,” said Perez.
“We had complications with the first litter. They put him on an ‘alan’ litter and it collapsed,” said Lott, “they were having issues getting it in, but we got it in.”
“As we were cleared to come in, because they weren’t under fire at the time, and because it was only big enough for one -- our lead aircraft was to come in and take the two critical patients and have the chase aircraft come in after we had taken off and take the ambulatory,” explained Joseph.
“But when we went in and were under fire, that’s when we all made the call to load up with as many as we could.”
The landing zone location had been picked for this location because the friendly ground forces had become combat-ineffective, couldn’t maneuver, because they had some many casualties, according to Joseph.
“That’s really what was going through mine and Lieutenant Cruz’s head. Get as many folks as we could, so they [the remaining ground forces] could move and ‘exfil’ [exfiltration], because we knew it wasn’t over with us just getting the wounded out,” said Joseph. “They still had to get out as well.”
Two minutes after landing, Lott, Perez and the ground medic had loaded two U.S. casualties, four Afghan casualties – Lt. Aaron Cruz executed the takeoff and performed a series of evasive maneuvers to avoid accurate enemy machine gun fire that began as the aircraft lifted.
“Lieutenant Cruz was back on controls and he kept us low and fast and away from any enemy positions all the way back to Pamir,” noted Joseph.
“Capt. Joe and I had already talked about how we were going to exit the LZ while we were on the ground,” said Cruz. “As soon as they gave us the word in the back, I pulled in everything the aircraft could give me, a hard bank out to the left and immediately rounds came from everywhere.”
“Machine gun rounds came under the disk as I was turning left. I just kept pulling in power, nosing the aircraft over and I flew back as fast as I could,” Cruz added.
Sgt. Lott, assisted by Spc. Perez, performed complete patient assessments on all the injured Soldiers –including blood sweeps to ensure tourniquets were holding, ensuring all patients had intact airways, and performing continuous breathing and circulation checks. Sgt. Lott also obtained ‘vitals’ of the most critical patient onboard to ensure he remained stable.
The men of DUSTOFF 62 delivered the injured back to Camp Pamir. Upon landing, Sgt. Lott accompanied the patient transfer and assisted the surgical team until the patients were ready for transfer to awaiting larger medical aircraft en route to full-scale medical facilities.
During this battle, two U.S. Soldiers and dozens of Afghan Soldiers lost their lives.
In keeping with the finest traditions of military service, their unselfish commitment to our fighting forces, and with complete disregard for their own personal safety, Capt. Trevor P. Joseph, 1st. Lt. Aaron P. Cruz, Sgt. Loran M. Lott, and Spc. Samuel E. Perez were awarded The Air Medal with ‘V’ Device for valor.
At a ceremony held here at the DUSTOFF hangar, Mar. 4, 2017, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott A. Howell, NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan commander, presented their awards. Former Afghanistan Minister of Defence, the Honorable Bismullah K. Muhammadi, and Resolute Support Mission Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Christopher K. Haas, arrived from Kabul to attend.
The DUSTOFF 62 crew are members of the C Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment (2-1 GSAB), 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, “The Fighting Eagles”, based at Fort Riley, Kansas. C Company is also known as ‘Boomer DUSTOFF’ that traces its lineage back to the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) and U.S. Army Maj. Charles L. Kelly, who lost his life in Vietnam in 1964 trying to evacuate a wounded U.S. advisor and several wounded Vietnam Army Soldiers. Kelly is considered by many to be a founding father of modern helicopter MEDEVAC.
“This is a significant event. The award itself is significant,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jake Dlugosz [pronounced ‘Due-Giss’], commander, 2-1 GSAB, “To be recognized for valor, for heroic action. It’s an award that doesn’t happen often.”
“These guys were in the right place at the right time to save lives…and they did.”
“It’s a really proud day for the Fighting Eagles and for Boomer Dustoff, a company with a history that goes back to Vietnam,” he continued. “I am very proud of this team and very proud of this organization.”
“I’m honored and humbled to be part of such an amazing organization that has amazing Soldiers like this,” said U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Dwight Evans, 2-1 GSAB command sergeant major. “Soldiers that can go out there each and every day and the in the face of adversity can just continue to do their mission with no regard for their own safety or their own life.”
“It is extremely humbling to be recognized like this,” said Capt Joseph. “There were three other MEDEVAC crews that were up there that I know would have done the same exact thing.”
“It is a great honor to be recognized for this,” said Lt. Cruz. “There were a lot of sacrifices that were made that night. I would just like to honor those that sacrificed everything that night.”
“Being a flight medic here at Bagram and being able to go and get to those people who need us is very rewarding,” noted Sgt. Lott. “The most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life to be honest with you.”
“It’s a tremendous honor, but it’s far from the greatest honor we could get,” reflected Spc. Perez. “The greatest honor is to be called a hero like the Soldiers that lost their lives. They are the ones that gave their all, literally mind, body, and soul. They are the heroes that night, we try to prevent them from giving that all.”
Combat medics are often referred to as ‘angels on the battlefield.’ Aerial medical evacuation lends those angels their wings.
More than fifty years ago in Vietnam, Maj. Kelly was said to have uttered this phrase moments before succumbing to the bullet that ended his life while attempting to save lives on the battlefield, “When I have your wounded…”
These Soldiers of Boomer DUSTOFF continue that finest tradition – Dedicated, Unhesitating Support To Our Fighting Forces – D.U.S.T.O.F.F.