For a guy whose job regularly puts him on the cusp of life and death, MSgt. Roger D. Sparks of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing has a wry sense of humor. The pararescue jumper—PJ—uses the word “valkyrie” in reference to his line of work. In Norse mythology, the valkyries, warrior daughters of Odin, determined who prevailed or perished in battle, then flew the fallen to immortality in Valhalla.
“Just kidding,” Sparks added quickly. But it’s an apt metaphor.
On deployment in Afghanistan last November, Sparks and combat rescue officer Capt. Koaalii Bailey—nicknamed “Koa”—both with the wing’s 212th Rescue Squadron, took charge of a platoon of American soldiers trapped in furious, chaotic fighting. They became the slender lifeline for the survivors of a heavy gun battle in an operation dubbed Bulldog Bite.
A PJ trains a gun out the door of an HH-60G Pave Hawk, keeping an eye on the terrain during Operation Bulldog Bite.(Photos via MSgt. Roger Sparks)
The final phase of Bulldog Bite targeted insurgent training camps and stashes in the rugged Watapur Valley in Kunar province on the northeast border with Pakistan. The dry, high, steep, and barren territory is far from major population centers or transportation corridors. Occupied by a few thousand farmers who tend crops in terraced gardens, it had little strategic value and remained largely ignored by coalition forces—until the military became concerned with attacks from the area.
According to Sparks, the purpose of the action was to “stomp the foot, show that we had the ability to go anywhere, any time.” Officers who took part in the action confirmed that’s what the enlisted personnel were told. But participating officers hinted at additional reasons for both the forceful power of the coalition strike and the heavy resistance of the insurgents.
A Pain Mohawk
The operation began on Nov. 12, 2010, with the insertion of 250 infantrymen. Within hours, the PJs of the 212th, assigned to HH-60s flown by airmen with the Air Force’s 33rd Rescue Squadron deployed from Okinawa, were called to bring out casualties.
On their first flight into the combat zone, bullets popped through the floor where the men sat in the Pave Hawks. Because of the elevation of the fighting, 7,000 feet and more, the HH-60s were stripped of their belly armor.
SrA. Jimmy Settle, one of the PJs from Alaska, was hit in the head by shrapnel, and his sunglasses filled with blood. Settle later described the feeling as “a giant pain Mohawk,” running from his forehead to the back of his head. The chopper returned to base, where medical teams advised surgery that would put Settle out of commission for several days.
When the next call came in at around 4 p.m. on Nov. 14, Sparks, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the team, took Settle’s place as one of three PJs in the lead helicopter.
On his way to the Pave Hawk, Sparks grabbed the paperwork. Its section on special equipment was marked “B,” meaning a hoist; the PJs would be lowered from the hovering helicopter. The paperwork listed the zone as “C,” meaning the site would be marked by smoke from a ground flare. The priorities were given as “2A 1 Hero”—two wounded men in need of urgent attention and one killed in action.
“I thought, ‘No big deal,’ ” Sparks said.
As they flew into the battle zone, he realized things were changing rapidly. A different operator came on the radio, indicating that the first operator was hit. “You could hear the fear in the guy’s voice,” Sparks said. “While we were listening, it went from two to six [wounded]. We knew it was gonna get weird.”
After an insurgent attack, smoke rises from Forward Operating Base Asadabad, about five miles away from these Pave Hawks.(Photos via MSgt. Roger Sparks)
Sparks and Bailey hooked onto the hoist and prepared to be lowered 40 feet to the ground. As they pushed out of the door, “the area exploded,” Sparks said. Bullets came from all angles.
“We’re taking fire! Get us down!” Bailey shouted to the crew.
The drop took only seconds, but seemed like an eternity. “The continual hiss and pop of rounds was all I could hear,” Sparks said. The cable was hit at least three times.
As soon as their feet touched the ground, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. Capt. Marcus Maris, piloting the HH-60, estimated the RPG went off 20 feet from the men on the ground. Blown off their feet, the PJs lay flat, with bullets hitting on all sides of them as the helicopter gunner began to return fire.
“I’ve never heard a more comforting sound than the .50-caliber firing and casings raining down on us,” said Sparks.
The PJs got up and ran for a tree where soldiers with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division had taken cover. They were nearly there when another RPG hit the tree, blowing it to bits. The PJs dove for cover, and then scrambled to the badly shaken infantrymen, who indicated that their commander was either dead or seriously wounded.
One soldier told the PJs the casualties were over a knoll and said, “Don’t go over there or else you’ll be killed, too.”
“You could feel the impact from incoming rounds through the knoll,” said Sparks. At first he thought he was in the middle of a ferocious exchange of fire.
But then he learned that the platoon was out of crew-served ammo. “That’s when I realized the maze of tracers was all enemy crew-served [ammunition] raking our location from multiple directions,” he said. The incoming fire, from at least three positions, was too heavy to lower a third PJ with the medical supplies.
Army Pfc. Martin Hauge watches the perimeter as US and Afghan soldiers clear a village during Bulldog Bite.(USA photo by SSgt. Mark Burrell)
As the helicopter left the scene to refuel and reload ammunition, Sparks and Bailey were left with their “sexy battle packs”—little more than personal first aid kits.
A Scene of Surreal Horror
This was the third day of the battle, and after three days of repeated ambushes and two hours of heavy assault, the soldiers bordered on shell shock. “They seemed like ghosts to me,” said Sparks. “We knew that tonight was the original planned exfil of these dudes. We also knew they were probably not getting out tonight.”
To make matters worse, Sparks, a former marine with combat experience in a forward reconnaissance unit, could tell from the shifting locations of the enemy fire that the insurgents were preparing a pincer move. They were taking positions that would let them trap and overrun the Americans.
The PJs essentially took command of the unit, giving directions and instilling a sense of order. Bailey oversaw communications.
It took 20 minutes, Sparks estimated, to get out “a decent call for fire.” An AH-64 Apache Longbow attack-helicopter team zipped in with Hellfire missiles. The missiles flew right over their heads and impacted “extremely close,” said Sparks. “The percussion was comforting.”
A soldier came rolling over the top of the knoll. He was missing teeth and spitting dirt and gravel out of a gash on his mouth caused by shrapnel. His hands were shaking.
“Smoke?” he asked as he met up with the PJs.
“We have two red and two green,” said Sparks, thinking he was asking for signal flares.
US and Afghan soldiers clear a village above the Pech River Valley as part of Bulldog Bite.(USA photo by SSgt. Mark Burrell)
“No. Cigarette,” the man said. From his attitude, Sparks figured “this guy was the one making things happen”—the presumed platoon leader.
Close behind the Apaches, a fighter checked in, probably an F/A-18. It dropped a 2,000-pound bomb in close proximity—so close Sparks wondered why he wasn’t killed.
But the attack had the desired effect. Incoming fire slowed, and with dark coming on, the PJs made their move to find the injured. They went over the knoll and immediately saw the casualties “just strung out” over steep terrain.
“Guys [were] tossed everywhere, screaming and moaning,” said Sparks of the scene of surreal horror. Only Sparks, Bailey, and a handful of the dazed soldiers “with little to no ammo” were there to help.
Sparks described a scene of “cordite, burning bushes, blown-up rucks, armor blown off guys, and chewed-up earth. Everything was naked and raw.” Bailey took charge of securing a casualty collection point while Sparks raced to the wounded.
“I grabbed the first guy, who was laying halfway in a bush. His legs were twitching and he was gasping loudly for each breath. He had a triangular wound on his right side, big enough that you could fit a fist through.” Sparks stuffed a chest seal package into the wound, decompressed the soldier’s chest with a needle, and gave him a painkilling Fentanyl “lollipop,” a powerful analgesic.
The crew of Pedro 83 (l-r): TSgt. Brandon Hill, Capt. Koaalii Bailey, MSgt. Roger Sparks, Capt. Kevin Weaver, SSgt. Ted Sierocinski, Capt. Marcus Maris, and MSgt. Rich Joy.(Photo via MSgt. Roger Sparks)
The man was in the middle of the draw, a fairly flat spot downhill from other casualties. Sparks and Bailey decided to make it their collection point.
Sparks went to the next man. He was screaming, his triceps “basically blown off.” Sparks applied a tourniquet and decompressed him.
A third man was shot through the right buttock, the bullet coming through the hip and leaving a massive wound. He was repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over. Sparks put a battle dressing on him and moved past a fourth man in a prone position with his weapon pointing toward the enemy; Sparks presumed he was watching a target.
Sparks moved along and tended to the wounded and the dead, forced to reuse the meager medical supplies—packs, pops, and needles. He spotted another man who “didn’t look like a casualty. He was just kicked back with his helmet off, asking if his buddies would be alright.”
It was now night, though the moon gave enough light for the enemy to keep up recurring fire. Sparks returned to the first man, in severe condition; he died in his arms. He gave the Fentanyl pop to the man with the triceps injury and moved him and the others to the collection point single-handedly. Returning to the kicked-backed man, he found him “mumbling into babbling nothingness.” He tried to cradle him off the rocks and realized “my hand was in the back of his head as I lifted his head up.”
He went to the prone man and told him he needed help moving bodies. There was no response. Sparks rolled him over and saw he had massive wounds to his face. Losing the three soldiers in a manner of minutes hit him hard.
He moved the dead to the collection point as gently as he could. “I know it sounds stupid, but I did not want to hurt them,” Sparks said.
Bailey had gotten word to the rest of the platoon to bring their wounded to the collection point. The injured came in, some looking like zombies, Sparks said, including an Afghan interpreter with his foot shot up.
As they worked triage and struggled to keep men alive, the PJs kept taking sporadic fire from the insurgents while the soldiers returned shots against a foe they couldn’t see. Fearing the enemy would regroup and stage another attempt to overrun the collection point, Sparks stripped weapons from the dead and organized them for ready access by the living.
The temperature had dipped to freezing when the Pave Hawks returned with medical reinforcements. The first two fresh PJs hoisted down in the dark landed on a steep slope and, attached to their stretchers, tumbled another 10 to 15 feet before they could reach the collection point. One of them was Jimmy Settle, the airman who had suffered the head wound two days prior.
He’d elected to get the shrapnel stitched into place in his scalp and go back into action; the shrapnel would be removed a week later.
The most seriously injured soldiers were evacuated immediately. Counting and recounting the casualties, Bailey discovered that the interpreter was missing. Sparks went into the moonlight and found the man standing in a rice paddy, appearing disoriented and disconnected. He brought the Afghan back to the collection point and had him hoisted up.
Next up were the deceased. Of the 60 men involved in the fight, four were dead, another would die from injuries, and 47 were wounded. Most would go out by hoist, and nearly every hoist, Sparks said, would be the target of enemy fire. It would take several trips, stretching into the next day.
Bailey reviewed evacuation plans with the platoon leader, then hooked in with Sparks to be pulled into the helicopter. The two had been on the ground for about five hours.
MSgt. Roger Sparks, shown here at JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, was a team leader during Bulldog Bite. He has been recommended for a Silver Star.(Anchorage Daily News photo by Bill Roth)
With the dead, the interpreter, flight crew, and PJs, the Pave Hawk was packed and probably past capacity. The PJs were forced to sit on the bodies, which infuriated Sparks.
“We were sitting on the dead bodies of the men I had just worked on for hours, men that relied on me and died. We wanted to treat them with as much respect as possible but we were just crammed in the back.”
They managed to get the body bags ready so that when the helicopter landed, they could hand over the dead, covered and draped with flags.
“I felt overwhelming grief,” Sparks said. “Koa, who up to that point had been all business, broke down. I know we did everything we could to save these men. It’s the only closure I’ve found.”
Within 30 minutes of unloading the injured and deceased, the PJs would be sent out again. This phase of Operation Bulldog Bite stretched out to a week, with further firefights and casualties. It was supposed to have lasted three days, and all involved got little sleep.
“There’s been significant disruption to [the enemy] network in that area. …This is a huge blow to the enemy,” Army Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell later told Army Times, regarding the success of Bulldog Bite. He cited large weapons caches destroyed and a retreat by the insurgents, saying the operation had broken the morale of the Taliban. Between 50 and 150 insurgents are thought to have been killed in the action.
Sparks keeps souvenirs of the mission in his locker at the 212th’s headquarters at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. They include the shot-up hoist cable by which he was lowered on Nov. 14, 2010, and the jacket he was wearing. The jacket has eight holes. They could be the result of hitting the rocks or running through brush—or they could be from shrapnel. Sparks suspects the latter. What he’s certain of is that they weren’t there before he stepped out of the helicopter.
“I do not understand how Koa and I were not killed,” he said. “It is unexplainable to me.”
Sparks still grieves for the fallen.
“What we can provide will never be enough,” he said, but “when you see those young guys on the ground, the bone marrow of America, and to be able to take our years of experience when they needed us and know that we saved four guys’ lives, it makes me feel that my efforts were repaid.”
Seven soldiers were killed in Operation Bulldog Bite between Nov. 12 and Nov. 16, 2010. They were:
SSgt. Kevin M. Pape, 30, of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Spc. Shane H. Ahmed, 31, of Chesterfield, Mich.
Spc. Shannon Chihuahua, 25, of Thomasville, Ga.
Spc. Nathan E. Lillard, 26, of Knoxville, Tenn.
Spc. Scott T. Nagorski, 27, of Greenfield, Wis.
Spc. Jesse A. Snow, 25, of Fairborn, Ohio
Pfc. Christian M. Warriner, 19, of Mills River, N.C.
All were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky., except for Pape. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.
In addition to the seven American fatalities, three members of the Afghan National Army were also killed in the operation.
MSgt. Roger D. Sparks has been recommended for a Silver Star. Five others from the 212th Rescue Squadron who took part in the action have been recommended for Distinguished Flying Crosses. They are:
SMSgt. Doug Widener
TSgt. Brandon Stuemke
SSgt. Jimmy Settle
SSgt. Ted Sierocinski
SrA. Aaron Parcha