U.S. Army Europe aviators talk about helping Bundeswehr troops during ambush by Taliban forces

By U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs
May 2, 2010

On April 2, German troops serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were ambushed by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Soldiers from U.S. Army Europe’s 12th Combat Aviation Brigade responded to the Germans’ calls for help, and braved enemy fire to evacuate the Bundeswehr troops. For their courageous efforts, 14 of the CAB’s Soldiers – 12 aviators and 2 medics – earned the Bundeswehr’s Gold Cross of Honor for valor. Shortly after their return from deployment, eight of the Soldiers talked with Sgt. Joel Salgado of the U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs Office about that fateful day. The Soldiers are expected to earn medals from the U.S. Army as well, but only partial details of those awards were available as of this writing -- Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Lacrosse will receive the Silver Star and the other seven Soldiers interviewed here will receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Salgado: How did the morning (of April 2) begin?

Capt. Robert McDonough, pilot: I remember stepping out of the tent on the 2nd of April and hearing gunfire off in the distance. At that point, we put everybody on a high state of alert and kept them near the area. At approximately 1300 a nine-line (medical evacuation request) came down, saying we had injured German soldiers. We got our first up crew ready to launch.

Salgado: What did you do to get ready?

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Lacrosse, pilot: Chief Brown ran to the command post to get all the information, while myself and Sgt. Shumaker went up to the aircraft to get it ready to go. Staff Sgt. Brown went to get the patient information and location. We got the aircraft ready to start and waited to get the grid (coordinates) and information. When Chief Brown came back with the information, I remember reading on the nine-line there was possible enemy in the area. I said, ‘No big deal. There’s always possible enemy in the area.’ So we waited for the launch approval then we took off and headed for the grid coordinates provided.

Salgado: After your helicopter left the base, what was going on?

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Brown, pilot: As we were coming into the (landing zone), we were doing a normal approach. Then it sounded like somebody lit off a whole brick of Black Cats (a type of firecracker). I remember looking out the door and seeing the German Marder (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) laying waste to whatever was behind us. We started to do our go-around and saw smoke get popped off at our 11 o’clock at Hill 432. We came around and landed. Staff Sgt. Brown hopped out to see what was going on with our communications.

Salgado: What happened on the ground?

Staff Sgt. Travis Brown, medic: The first thing the guys on the ground said was, ‘Why did you land?’ ‘Because you popped smoke,’ I told them. They said they were not ready, we’ll call you when we’re ready, give us 15 minutes. At that time we still didn’t have any contact with the ground forces on the radio.

Lacrosse: We took off out of that LZ, took fire from the town on our right, banked left took more fire, banked right took more fire and then decided to go loiter somewhere else so we could stop getting shot at.

Brown:  We talked to our chase bird and they suggested we loiter over this plateau after they watched us jink and dive through all the fire.

Lacrosse: We loitered over the plateau for about 15 minutes then decided to return to the LZ. (We) landed and Staff Sgt. Brown hopped out and ran up Hill 432 to talk to the German captain to find out what was going on and try to get some comms.

Brown: Sgt. Shumaker jumped out to provide security, and that’s when that incident with the guy trying to walk up to the helicopter happened.

Salgado: What happened?

Sgt. Steven Shumaker, crew chief: He was coming for us with a purpose. I called it out to the pilots and they told me to wave him off. He kept coming, so they told me to pop off a couple of shots, and he kept coming after several shots in his direction. At this point the Afghan police heard me engaging him, and they decided to come help out, and they took him into custody. By this point Staff Sgt. Brown was back at the aircraft, so we took off -- still without a patient.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nelson Visaya, pilot: We were sitting on the flight line and I heard you guys having communication problems. So I fired up my aircraft and tried to relay communications between our command and you guys.

Brown: We decided to stay in the area and we were taking fire from every little town we flew over. That’s when that white car came under us. It started shooting at us as we flew over it. It was the loudest shooting I heard all day.

Lacrosse: We finally talked to the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground and he said the patients were ready for pickup, but the LZ is still hot. I don’t remember saying it but apparently I said, ‘It’s not to hot for us.’

Salgado: Now you’re at the LZ for a second time. What was going on this time?

Lacrosse: We went in for a second time to the first LZ we tried to land at. We came in fast to avoid fire. The German Marders were firing off their grenade launchers. One flew right over the nose of the aircraft and two (rocket-propelled grenades) flew under the tail boom as we came in.

Salgado: It sounds kind of like Black Hawk Down (the story of a helicopter crew under attack in Somalia in 1993). Gunfire aside, what did you do on the ground?

Lacrosse: We landed, and Staff Sgt. Brown got off and recovered the patient, put him on, and we took off and headed back to Kunduz. We got back to Kunduz and dropped off that patient.

Salgado: A pretty short trip in and out, then. When you returned to Kunduz what did you do with your patients?

Shumaker: Sgt Brown walked with the medical team on the ground toward the ambulance to give them a brief and Sgt. Gattis -- the other team’s medic -- came over to see what’s going on and check if Staff Sgt. Brown needed a resupply. I told the pilots, ‘We have a medic. Let’s go.’ I knew we needed to get back out there. Staff Sgt. Brown came running back and hopped into the aircraft.

 Lacrosse: We took off, went back to the LZ to get the second patient, and were taking fire the whole way. As we got to the LZ, I thought I saw personnel in the wood line firing at us. I said, ‘Hey, Sgt. Shumaker -- are those people in the wood line firing at us?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t think so. They’re like 300 meters away.’ I called Black Magic -- our chase bird -- and told them we were taking fire from the wood line off to our right. That’s when Black Magic came in and floated their aircraft, putting themselves between us and the incoming fire, and suppressed the enemy in the wood line. We got the other patient in while this was happening, took off, and headed back to Kunduz. That’s when we got the call that about the (improvised explosive device) blast and that there were four more patients in urgent condition.  

Salgado: What did you do to respond to that call?

McDonough: I remember hearing over the radio, ‘We got four more. We have a mass (casualty) situation. We need second up.’ We took off as a flight of three after the other two aircraft got back and headed back to the area. As we were coming in, I remember seeing the smoke and bullets coming under the aircraft.

Sgt. Antonio Gattis, medic: As we were flying over this wooded area, I heard a popping noise. It sounded like it was coming from inside the aircraft. I turned back to Baker and asked, ‘Are you shooting?’ and he said no. I looked back down. I could hear it again. And then I saw a round passing from my three o’clock to our 11 o’clock. At that point I realized it wasn’t a good idea to have my head out of the aircraft.

Spc. Matthew Baker, crew chief: When we got out there, we found out the patients weren’t ready, and that’s when chief Lacrosse called up and said you and the chase aircraft needed to get more fuel.

Salgado: What went on at the base during your return for fuel?

Lacrosse: We had already been flying for about an hour and 45 minutes, so we decided to head back and get more fuel. So all three of us flew back and we got fuel. We did a hot refuel, and it was the first time the German fueling crew did a hot refuel. That’s when Shumaker noticed we had a round in our transmission housing. I said, ‘Is it downing my aircraft? Nope. Let’s go.’ We all took off that’s when they gave us a new grid coordinate for a different location. So we didn’t go back into that bad LZ. We headed up there and both of our aircraft landed, (and) we picked up the four urgent German soldiers. Once we got them, that’s when we headed back to Kunduz. That’s when we shut down and started resupplying and getting fuel. We thought we were done.

Baker: We were inspecting our aircraft and seeing all the bullet holes, when we got another call.

Lacrosse: A call came in that another (German) Dingo truck hit an IED, and we had four more patients that were in urgent condition. So I said, ‘OK, spool up. Let’s go.’

Baker: I remember Mr. Visaya, who is our maintenance test pilot, running around inspecting of all of the aircraft saying they were good, let’s go.

Lacrosse: We headed back to the same LZ, picked up four more patients, and headed back to Kunduz. That’s when we were engaged by a man in a boat. Our chase aircraft suppressed him and we continued on to Kunduz.

McDonough: We later joked we were engaged by the Taliban navy.

Lacrosse: We started checking our aircraft when we got back, and refueling, hoping we wouldn’t have to go out again. But that was it.

Salgado: So overall an eventful day. Is there anything you would like to say to the German forces you worked with?

Lacrosse: The German Soldiers did such an amazing job protecting us as we came into the LZ and holding off over 200 Taliban they were fighting that day. It was as if everything worked out like a symphony.

Baker: When we first got there (to Afghanistan), we had classes and we told them (the German ISAF forces), ‘If you have somebody injured, call us.’ I think it finally set in that day that we were going to come and we weren’t just talking. I think it opened eyes about what we could do together.

The remaining six Soldiers from the 12th CAB who earned medals for their actions in Afghanistan had not redeployed at the time of these interviews. They are Chief Warrant Officer 3 Steven Husted; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Sean Johnson; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric Wells; Sgt. William Ebel; Spc. Todd Marchese and Spc. Gregory Martinez.