Heroism From the Hip

May 28, 2015

On Oct. 8, 2013, five US Air Force advisors climbed aboard an Afghan Mi-17 helicopter for what was supposed to be a routine mission. The flight ended as anything but, with the Air Force team racing against time to save the life of a grievously wounded colleague.

For their actions that day the US personnel involved were all submitted for the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

Troop movement and resupply was the plan. Long flights over desert and rough terrain are common in Afghanistan, where forward operating bases are often scattered far from central depots, and that is what the operation that day entailed.

Two Mi-17s were to ferry Afghan National Army commandos from their central provincial base to a forward operating station in the lush Gizab valley. The number of troops involved meant that both helicopters would have to make two trips.

Medevac mission

Their destination was a bowl-like location at a high altitude. In other words, it was a good place for a Taliban ambush.

Things went smoothly at the beginning. The helicopters made their first troop infiltration run without incident. Then they returned to Tarin Khowt Airfield in Uruzgan province for their second load of troops and more fuel.

Along the way they learned that some Afghan soldiers back at the drop zone had been wounded. One had received a gunshot through his cheek that was beginning to affect his vision.

One of the Russian-made aircraft had an Afghan crew. The other was flown by an Afghan pilot and carried the US advisors. “The way the crew members performed that day was pretty impressive,” says Capt. Jeremy W. Powell, from JB Andrews, Md. He was the ranking member of the group that also included SSgt. Christopher D. Rector from Yokota AB, Japan, then-SSgt. Mark B. Cornett from Andrews, then-SSgt. Benjamin G. Jacobs from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and TSgt. James J. Juniper from Nellis AFB, Nev.

Powell was in the right seat. His Afghan counterpart was in the left. Flight Engineer Rector was sitting between them and slightly behind. They would have to hurry up for a medical evacuation following their second infiltration drop. “When we heard that, we kind of expedited our process on the ground,” says Powell.

The Mi-17s headed back toward the Gizab valley. The Russian aircraft are sturdy but present challenges for US Air Force pilots. The rotors turn in the opposite direction from American helicopters.

The throttle controls are similarly backward, as far as the American military is concerned. Some of the older models have labels printed only in Cyrillic. Translators are essential when flying with Afghans who aren’t completely proficient in English.

But these circumstances also represent opportunity for growth. Powell, a Nebraska native, 2006 graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and second generation member of the US military, says he found mentoring Afghan counterparts to be fulfilling. Constant resupply and transportation flights over the thinly settled country gave US instructors plenty of opportunity to teach their students how to handle different kinds of missions.

The goal of the US presence was—and is—self-sustainment, “so it’s all Afghans-supporting-Afghans on the ground,” says Powell.

On this day an Afghan flew while Powell observed. The aircraft climbed up the mountainside then began its descent into the rocky bowl of Gizab. They were to provide cover in the operation’s initial stage, while the second helicopter dropped off its soldiers and picked up the wounded man. Next they would reverse places, with the Mi-17 that carried the US contingent off-loading its commandos.

Then events took over. As they approached the landing zone, shots rang out along the right side of the second aircraft. It was an ambush.

Juniper is wounded

“In this trade, you’re always prepared to get shot at but there is still that initial surprise when the first bullet snaps by,” said Jacobs, in a 2013 Air Force news release. “The sheer volume of fire immediately told me that this was different from a typical en route ‘pop shot’ style engagement.”

To some of the Americans it sounded as if several rounds might have hit their fuselage. But the noise came primarily from the firing on the ground, not the rattle of metal on metal. The Afghan pilot turned in the direction of the threat.

At that moment Powell took control of the aircraft. He says he was concerned that the language barrier might hamper their response to a suddenly high-pressure situation.

Powell turned away from the gunshots and began evasive maneuvers. Meanwhile the helicopters’ own gunners kept firing.”We basically stayed in position to cover our wingman on the ground,” says Powell.

The enemy firing continued. There were approximately a half-dozen main enemy positions, scattered around the landing site so that it was difficult if not impossible for the Mi-17 to turn safely away from the bullets. Rotor wash obscured the landing area with dust so fine it resembled talcum powder. At that point they were flying so low they could actually hear the rattle of the enemy’s rifles over the sound of the helicopter.

“On top of that we could see individuals with weapons on the ground,” says Powell.

After three or four rounds of gunshots Powell and his Afghan counterpart decided the zone was too hot for them to disembark their own troops. “Cornett and Jacobs returned fire when a second group of insurgents began shooting,” Air Force officials wrote in a description of the team’s mission in the service’s annual “Portraits in Courage” collection. “After hearing rounds impacting the helicopter the two advisors called a breakaway from the new threat and saw that Juniper had been severely wounded while manning the right-side M240 machine gun and was now lying unconscious on the floor of the aircraft’s cabin.”

It was hard for the US trainers to see Juniper’s situation due to the load of Afghan commandos crammed one next to the other. But it appeared Juniper had taken an assault rifle round through the center of his neck. He was lying in a pool of blood.

The fog of war was already settling in. Some of the American trainers today say Juniper was unconscious when they spotted him. One thinks that in fact he was still conscious and trying to get their attention. According to Cornett, Juniper was reaching up with a bloody hand and trying to knock on the flight engineer’s door.

“When I saw his hand, I knew then he wasn’t dead, but I didn’t know if he would survive,” said Cornett later, according to a 2014 Air Force news release.

In any case, many things happened at once, or nearly so. The translator, nicknamed “Rocky,” jumped on the radio to update their base about the situation.

Jacobs and Cornett began moving toward their injured colleague Juniper. Powell turned the helicopter away from another burst of fire—this time a rocket-propelled grenade. He could see the telltale burst of smoke.

Jacobs almost fell out of the open rear ramp, where he’d been sitting. Fortunately someone grabbed him.

“As I’m turning away and Jacobs is unhooking, he starts to fall backward, and thanks to Cornett, he stops him,” says Powell.

To reach Juniper, Cornett and Jacobs crawled over the Afghan commandos crammed in the cargo area. The two immediately applied direct pressure to the entry and exit wounds. That was crucial. Getting immediate first aid to such a serious wound can be a life saver.

Operational chaos

Despite the hostile environment, the Mi-17 stayed overhead long enough to cover the evacuation of the wounded Afghan soldier. The other aircraft lifted off and the flight began a hasty exit from the valley. Along the way Powell and Rector saw the plume from another RPG round. The pilot maneuvered around the threat, while Rector, Cornett, and Jacobs stripped the wounded Juniper of his body armor and continued to supply aid to help stanch the flow of blood.”We were flying as fast as a helicopter can fly,” Powell says.

There was blood all over the floor and blood all over Juniper and the men rendering aid. But their efforts paid off. After about 15 minutes the blood flow slowed as Juniper’s situation seemed to stabilize.

There was still an obstacle to surmount before he could reach medical professionals, however. On landing, the US airmen discovered operational chaos. They were not met by an ambulance poised to rush Juniper for treatment. No ambulance was coming. None were available.

Instead, Jacobs and Cornett ran out and stopped the first moving vehicle they encountered. Powell remembers it was a silver truck. The US airmen informed the driver, in essence, that they did not care what he was doing. They needed his services.

“The individual said, ‘OK, sure,’ and backed it up,” says Powell.

Within minutes Juniper was getting full medical treatment. Jacobs and Cornett stayed with him at the hospital. There was no immediate word on the wounded man’s prognosis. Powell, Rector, and Afghan crew members repositioned their helicopter and shut it down.

On assessing battle damage they discovered that the round that had hit Juniper had passed through the fuselage only about one-quarter of an inch from an important control tube.

“It’s a pretty robust aircraft. The Russians developed it for extreme conditions. That one had been through a lot,” says Powell.

After reporting in to their superiors, Powell and Rector went to the hospital to see how Juniper was doing. Their Mi-17 needed work before it could fly again. Eventually another aircraft, with maintainers, flew in to carry out repairs.

On their return the US trainers experienced a moment that Powell says was the most emotional part of the ordeal, at least for him. They were greeted and thanked by top Afghan military commanders for their role in the rescue of wounded Afghans.

“I would say it was a combination of understanding what we’d been through, and at the same time a …’Thank you for doing this,’?” says Powell.

Close call

Juniper made a full recovery. He was stabilized and later medically evacuated to a NATO hospital. He was fortunate, as the bullet passed through his body just millimeters from a main artery and exited precariously close to his spine.

He had only been in Afghanistan two weeks before being wounded.

“I’d like to tell my crew thanks for saving my life,” said Juniper, a native of Keota, Iowa, at a Purple Heart ceremony at Kandahar Airfield in 2013. “I owe them my life, and I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.”

“I still think the job we do is a very important one,” said Juniper. “This wound won’t deter me from getting back out there and getting the job done.”

For his role in the incident Cornett in 2014 received the Vanguard Award of the Noncommissioned Officers Association of the US. The award annually honors one enlisted member from each of the armed services for actions saving a life or preventing serious injury.

Cornett—a Marylander who graduated from Baltimore County’s Parkville High in 2003—at first thought it was a joke. When he read the email notifying him of the honor and saying he would receive a trip to Las Vegas for the award ceremony he “thought it was a scam,” he told his local Maryland newspaper in 2014.

But it wasn’t. It was real. Cornett was cited for his role in reacting to and alleviating Juniper’s injury. The award also noted that throughout the time over the landing zone in the Gizab valley, Cornett called out enemy positions to help with evasive maneuvers while simultaneously carrying out suppressive fire with the Mi-17’s machine gun.

“I feel very honored and proud to receive such a prestigious award, but I am more grateful that we all made it home,” said Cornett on receiving the Vanguard citation last June. “I may be receiving this award, but I know that each person on my crew played a critical role in saving JJ’s life as well as getting us out of there alive.”

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Growing STEM Students Through CyberPatriot,” appeared in March.