HONOLULU — Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Beversdorf isn't sure if there was a malfunction before the CH-47 Chinook Army helicopter hit a pine tree in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, or if the tree-strike came first, followed by the malfunction.
The rest is pretty clear. The twin-rotor chopper went down hard from a height of about 60 feet, whipping around and sliding to a stop in the darkness.
Much of the top half of the fuselage was gone, the rotors were shredded and the more than 30 Schofield Barracks and Afghan soldiers onboard were in a jumble with their gear, Beversdorf said. What was left of the twisted wreck was on fire.
Things didn't get any easier on the rainy and cold 10,000-foot mountain ridge over the next five days.
After helping 12 of the wounded, Beversdorf, a tactical air controller from Wheeler Army Airfield, called in airstrike after airstrike as enemy fighters attacked, directing a staggering 22 bombs in one day — some within what's known as "danger close" proximity.
"Sgt. Beversdorf's actions significantly contributed towards the 40 enemy fighters reported as (killed in action), and helped to ensure zero friendly casualties as a result of enemy actions over this period," his citation for an Army Commendation medal with a "V" for valor states.
On Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C., Beversdorf, 27, will be recognized at the annual USO gala in front of more than 1,000 people as Air Force Airman of the Year.
Senior enlisted representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and National Guard select one of their own for the recognition.
"Each year, the USO recognizes service honorees who are recommended for acts of bravery and exemplary service," said USO President and CEO Sloan Gibson. "Staff Sgt. Beversdorf's actions in Afghanistan last year saved the lives of a number of his comrades, while fending off an attack after surviving a helicopter crash. We are proud to present him with this year's USO Airman of the Year Award."
For Beversdorf, who is with the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron, the recognition comes after two tours in Iraq and three to Afghanistan.
In 2008, Beversdorf aided wounded American soldiers in Sinsil, Iraq, after a makeshift bomb went off in a courtyard, killing six troops.
He is part of the Air Force but trains and deploys with Army infantry units to marshall from the ground the support that comes to the rescue overhead.
Between June 24 and 30, 2011, during Operation Hammer Down in Kunar province, as enemy fighters attacked the temporarily stranded U.S. troops with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, the Yuma, Ariz., man directed B-1, F-15 and F-16 strikes against the opposing forces.
Army Apache gunship helicopters only were able to come in at the end because of bad weather and the elevation, he said.
Beversdorf said it's "awesome" to have been picked for the USO honor.
"I know my family and my unit and everyone are really proud," he said Friday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The downside is that only he is being recognized.
"There were another 100-some dudes out there, and they were all doing their part," he said. "I was just a piece of the big machine."
Beversdorf said he was part of a "quick reaction force" sent to aid other Schofield Barracks soldiers with the 3rd "Bronco" Brigade who were under fire in the Watapor Valley.
He and the others made it to the designated landing spot on a ridgeline plateau about four miles away, but plans changed with the crash. Some of those onboard received serious injuries, but none died.
"If you have the opportunity to (be in a helicopter crash), pass. It hurts," Beversdorf said.
"Very violent" is the way he described the chopper's fall.
"Cargo straps don't hold their worth in an accident, I can tell you that, because everything we had strapped down ended up every which way."
The injured were flown out by helicopter, and the remaining troops stayed near the downed Chinook to see whether commanders wanted to airlift it out or destroy it in place.
"Within five minutes, (Beversdorf) established communications with a B-1B bomber aircraft and began working to ensure perimeter security by directing defensive aerial scans around their position," his citation states.
Beversdorf said the first attack came four to five hours later with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire. For the first couple of days, the attacks were from three- to five-man teams, he said. Later attacks involved 15 to 20 fighters.
The airman called in 500-pound and 2,000-pound bomb strikes to fend them off, according to his citation.
Some of the enemy still got within 75 to 150 feet, "so, fairly close," Beversdorf said.
"I don't know if we were lucky or we just fought harder than the bad guys, but there were no injuries (after the crash), no one got hurt and no one died," he said.
With the soldiers safely removed from the crash site, another tactical air controller called in a last airstrike — a 500-pound bomb that obliterated what was left of the downed Chinook.