Legal Eagle in Albuquerque and Afghanistan
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chris Holland could well be the only lawyer on Earth who flew hundreds of helicopter medevac missions in Afghanistan’s deadly Helmand province without suffering so much as a scratch — but was shot down at home by someone firing a hunting rifle.
Holland, a lieutenant colonel with the New Mexico National Guard, simply shrugs with a “What can I say?” look on his face when the irony of those events became a recurring topic in an interview last week centered on his parallel military and legal careers.
Both events were life-changing, he admits, but in unexpected ways.
Holland was attending New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs in 1981 when an Army recruiter convinced him that a military career would help him achieve his goals, including flying a helicopter. He was soon enrolled at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales on an ROTC scholarship, where he earned a degree in finance.
He went into the Army full time in 1982, graduated from helicopter f light school in 1983 and spent the next nine years flying UH-1 Hueys, OH-58A Kiowas and UH-60 Black Hawks.
He joined the National Guard in 1992 as a warrant officer and received a law degree from the University of New Mexico in 1994. In 1996, he joined Sutin, Thayer and Brown law firm.
He switched to the Army Reserves for four years as a judge advocate general — a military lawyer — and, in 2004-05, served as a JAG in Baghdad.
In 2006, he returned to the New Mexico National Guard to fly Black Hawk helicopters, a vocation he’d had reason to question just a year earlier.
In August 2005, Holland was flying a Hughes MD-500 helicopter part-time for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on Aug. 6, he and Deputy Ward Pfefferle were assisting deputies who were investigating a possible residential burglary near Golf Course and Paradise on Albuquerque’s West Side.
While hovering about 400 feet above the deputies and illuminating the area with the helicopter’s spotlight, a bullet from a .30-06 rifle shattered the helicopter’s left tail rotor pedal then ricocheted into Holland’s left calf, ripping out a 3-inch chunk of skin and muscle.
With no control of the tail rotor, the helicopter began spinning wildly. Despite his wound, Holland’s training kicked in. Using an auto-rotate maneuver that keeps the helicopter’s blades turning and slows its descent, he crash landed the two-seat chopper. Though the $500,000 helicopter was destroyed, Holland and Pfefferle were not seriously injured in the crash.
The chopper crashed just a few feet from a residence and a cinder block wall, either of which could have changed the outcome.
Holland was hospitalized for about a week for treatment of the gunshot wound. He told reporters at the time that he wasn’t sure when, or if, he’d fly again. Although the media reported that Holland said his flying days were over, Holland remembers it differently.
“I’m sure I was seriously thinking that I might quit, but I don’t know that I made the decision at that point that I was going to stop flying for good,” Holland said last week. The pain medications he was on at the time of the interview, he said, could have played a role in the miscommunication, he said.
Regardless, Holland was back at the controls of a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter a few months later.
Ten days after Metro 1 crashed, a 29-year-old former Marine marksman with a disability and who lived near the crash scene was arrested and charged with five federal counts related to the crash and Holland’s injuries.
In May 2006, suspect Jason Kerns was released from nine months of custody after prosecutors learned that ballistic tests on the bullet removed from Holland’s leg could not be conclusively connected to Kerns’ .30-06 rifle. All charges against Kerns were dropped.
As a lawyer — when not in uniform, Holland handles civil and employment cases as a senior lawyer at Sutin, Thayer and Brown — Holland said he understands why the charges against Kerns were dropped. But as a victim, he will likely never know who shot him or why.
“Yeah, it does bother me — that big question mark,” Holland said. “But my leg is fine, there are no lasting effects, and I’ve been able to move on. Had things gone worse, I might feel differently.”
The hundreds of wounded Marines and Afghani civilians Holland and his fellow soldiers rescued last year would no doubt feel differently too, had things gone worse.
In April 2011, Holland and the Guard unit he commanded, C Company, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, left for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan where they would f ly chief ly medevac missions in support of U.S. and British Marines on the ground.
Charlie Company had 109 personnel comprised chiefly of New Mexico National Guardsmen, but also members of the Minnesota and Arizona National Guards. Collectively, they were responsible for medical evacuations throughout Helmand province, long a stronghold of the Taliban and the most volatile region in Afghanistan.
Operating out of four scattered forward operating bases, Charlie Company operated and maintained 17 Black Hawk helicopters that had to be ready 24/7 for medevac, logistical and supply missions.
In the 12 months Holland and his unit were in Afghanistan, they flew more than 1,450 missions, transported about 1,800 patients and logged more than 4,000 flying hours.
In one noteworthy rescue, a Charlie Company crew transported a 22-year-old Marine who had a live warhead from a rocket-propelled grenade embedded in his thigh and abdomen to a field hospital where the grenade was removed. The Marine, Cpl. Winder Perez, survived.
The crewmen who flew the mission — Capt. Kevin Doo, CWO2 Jeff Paulson, Spc. Mark Edens and Sgt. Robert Hardesty — could have turned it down without repercussions, but they never hesitated, Holland said.
“I’m extremely proud of the soldiers that I was fortunate enough to serve with over there,” Holland said when asked his overall impression of the yearlong deployment. “I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
Watching those under his command perform so well under the demanding conditions they were exposed to, he said, “is a humbling experience.”
He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his command in Afghanistan. On Sunday, Holland, 50, will officially turn Charlie Company over to a new commander and take on a new staff position with the New Mexico National Guard. The state Guard is awaiting Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointment of a new adjutant general, or Guard commander.
“My next assignment will be as a staff officer. The exact details of that have not been worked out,” he said.
Holland said he’ll stay with the Guard “until they throw me out.”
Holland has flown for nearly 30 years, and he still enjoys it.
“I consider it a blessing to be able to get up in the morning and put the Army uniform on, even if it’s just a couple of days a month,” he said, but quickly added, “Over the last year and a half, of course, it’s been a lot more often than that.”