'We were there for those kids'
Stars and Stripes
It had the makings of a classic ambush, with the enemy poised on a remote ridgeline in Afghanistan waiting for the Americans to enter the narrow valley below. But the two Apache helicopters that roared to the rescue squelched the scheming insurgents with a barrage of gunfire.
Four U.S. Army pilots were thrust into a battle for their lives and for the U.S. and Afghan soldiers they were protecting on the ground against a heavily armed group of Taliban on motorcycles and in trucks equipped with weapons to knock aircraft from the sky.
It was Nov. 7, 2009, a day that began as a routine mission for Capts. Kyle Maki and Matthew Clawson, and Chief Warrant Officers 4 Alexander Brigman Jr. and Keith Matz. While searching for enemy fighters setting up roadside bombs, they were called to Forward Operating Base Nawbahar, a remote outpost in eastern Zabul province.
Their new tasking turned into an hourlong firefight in which they spent all their ammunition while dodging anti-aircraft guns. The final tally: 18 confirmed dead insurgents; zero injured U.S. or Afghan troops. Zero bullet holes in the Apaches and numerous enemy spoils of war.
For their action, deemed “above and beyond the call of duty,” each of the four received the Distinguished Flying Cross, America’s oldest military aviation award, created by Congress more than 80 years ago.
“My biggest thing is we were there for those kids on the ground,” said Matz, 38, of Slippery Rock, Pa.
The outcome might have been different if not for the Apaches, given the terrain and the overwhelming firepower the Taliban brought to the fight, the pilots say.
The small company of Afghan National Army soldiers and their U.S. trainers from the 82nd Airborne Division called for air cover when their tiny mud-brick base began receiving mortar fire.
“En route, we got in contact with them and they said they were still getting mortared,” said Brigman, 46, of Pace, Fla. “It didn’t make sense. Usually the bad guys drop a few mortars and leave. That’s when Capt. Maki said, ‘That sounds like an ambush to me.’ ”
When the Apaches arrived, the ground troops were headed in the direction from which they thought the mortars were coming. The Apaches flew a big circle around them, scanning the area for anything unusual.
The soldiers called the pilots again, this time saying, “We’re hearing heavy machine gun fire and it’s not being directed at us.”
“At that moment, we realized we were being shot at,” Brigman said. “We just didn’t know from where. I told everyone to keep their head on a swivel.”
That’s when Maki, the co-pilot and gunner of the lead Apache with Brigman, saw a truck with an anti-aircraft gun aimed at his aircraft.
“We saw the flashes coming from the barrel,” he said.
Maki fired the Apache’s 30 mm cannon, destroying the truck and gun. Matz and Clawson — Maki’s and Brigman’s wingmen in the trailing Apache — radioed about another truck with an anti-aircraft gun also pointed at their helicopter.
“My aircraft rolls back in [and] we destroy the second truck with a Hellfire missile,” Maki said.
In total, there were four trucks spread across the ridgeline about 200 meters apart firing with heavy anti-aircraft artillery, Matz said.
That wasn’t all.
Maki, 26, of Memphis, Tenn., and Brigman flew in closer and got their first glimpse of what they were up against.
“It looks like we kicked up an ant hill,” Brigman said. “There were foreign fighters everywhere.”
Many of them moved about on motorcycles, hidden deep in the shadows of a ravine.
Maki estimated at least 30 enemy fighters and 20 motorcycles.
Both Apaches took turns diving and firing.
“He would roll in first,” Matz said of Brigman. “He would say ‘Outbound,’ and I’d roll in. What you want to do is a constant barrage of fire on them.”
Maki fired 300 rounds of the 30mm cannon, which explode on impact like a grenade, two Hellfire missiles, which spray shrapnel upon detonation, and rockets.
The helicopters eventually left to refuel and rearm, flying through a sandstorm, before returning to continue providing air cover until sundown. The ground forces recovered four trucks — including two stolen from the Afghan National Army — 17 motorcycles, one recoilless rifle with five rounds of ammunition, seven rocket-propelled grenades, 17 AK-47s, roadside bomb-making components, a video recorder and multiple intelligence documents, Maki said.
It was a deliberate, planned attack by the Taliban to train young fighters how to properly engage aircraft and ground forces, Maki said.
“They were waiting for the U.S. and [Afghan National Army] forces to come through that [ravine],” Brigman said. “It would have just been a turkey shoot.”