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'God is very happy with what we have done here'

It was the moment the sun’s rays broke through the storm clouds that the magnitude of the previous two days hit then-Lt. Col. Bernard “Jeep” Willi.

2,080. People. Saved.

Over two grueling, storm-battered days, 14 U.S. and Afghan crewmembers in two Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, dispatched to flood-ravaged areas of eastern Afghanistan, had plucked nearly 2,100 Afghans from Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.

Until July 2010, in Willi’s 20-year career as a rescue pilot, he had tallied a total of 13 saves.

“It was on the flight back from Jalalabad to Kabul … as we were heading west, after all the storms and stuff, the clouds started to break, the sun’s beams of light were coming through that it hit me,” said the 46-year-old Air Force pilot.

Willi’s Afghan co-pilot, Maj. Mohammed Hassan, also recognized the moment.

“God is very happy with what we have done here today,” Hassan told Willi as they returned from the floods and devastation.

Willi, now stationed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia and promoted to colonel, is still amazed at the things he saw then.

“I know it sounds corny,” Willi said. “I guess you had to be there, but to see it, it was really something.”

Rescuers know better than to think missions can predictable, but it was to be somewhat banal, a small and swift rescue job to save a handful of herders caught in rising flood waters.

“It was like we had an unspoken truce for that day.”
- Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Fife

It ended with thousands of men, women and children saved, some rescued from a notoriously dangerous part of the Afghanistan, under the watchful eye of the Taliban.

Willi and fellow pilot Lt. Col. Greg “Boomer” Roberts received the Air Force’s Distinguished Flying Cross with “V.” Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Fife was awarded the Airman’s Medal.

It was a humanitarian rescue mission in a hot combat zone, and touted as the largest two-ship helicopter rescue in U.S. Air Force history, said Roberts, who served as the lead pilot for Afghan Rescue 705 Flight for the grueling two-day mission that began hastily on the morning of July 28, 2010.

The call for help came at 7:28, just as the trainers assigned to the Combined Air Power Transition Force in Kabul were leaving their morning meeting. As commander for the program’s helicopter squadron, Roberts had been looking forward to a quiet Wednesday to catch up on paperwork and administrative tasks.

Within minutes of the call, Roberts assembled two crews of U.S. and Afghan pilots, crew chiefs, translators and Air Force Dr. (Lt. Col.) Jimmy Barrow as the flight surgeon.

The two Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopters were so new they had less than 50 hours of flight time and “still had that new helicopter smell,” joked Roberts, now stationed at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. “That changed as soon as we muddied them up.”

Two challenges daunted the pilots.

First, the new birds had a “Western” cockpit, meaning all instruments were in English and the Afghans had yet to familiarize themselves with the change. But one was equipped with a hoist that crews thought would be crucial for rescues of people trapped on patches of land surrounded by rushing river waters and on rooftops of mud homes.

That’s where then-Master Sgt. Fife comes in. While not an expert in use of the hoist, he was familiar enough with the equipment to use it if necessary.

Second, and perhaps of graver concern, was that the helos weren’t armed.

It wasn’t a problem on the first day as the crews rescued nomads from an area considered to be low threat.

But Day 2 of the mission took the rescuers into the Kunar Valley, an insurgent hotbed. Weeks earlier, Willi’s aircraft had been fired on by heavy machine guns in the area.

They were flying into the heart of “bad guy land” armed with nothing more than their 9 mm sidearms, Fife said.

As the helos landed on high ground in Dona to drop off rescued passengers, one of the interpreters drew Fife’s attention to a large white flag waving about 300 to 400 yards away.

“Do you see that? See the white flag on that hill? That’s Taliban,” Fife, 37, recalls him saying. “But they’re not going shoot at you.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Gee, thank you. How wonderful they’re not going to shoot me today.’ ”

The raising of the white flag — not a symbol of truce in Afghanistan but a representation of the Taliban — sent a chilling but clear message to the rescuers: They were being watched.

Afghan National Police began arriving at the drop-off site and formed a protective perimeter with their pickups and Humvees, some armed with .50-caliber machine guns.

The rescue missions went on.

“It was like we had an unspoken truce for that day,” Fife said.

And it left a resounding counterinsurgency message with the local residents, Roberts said: “The Afghan government can save them. The Taliban cannot.”

On that second day, with flooding conditions much worse, the crews plucked about 1,700 people from raging waters, flooded rice patties and rooftops of mud homes on the precipice of being swept away.

During one rescue, Willi held a hover within five feet of a suspension bridge to rescue nine men.

On another lift, as crews rescued 12 people, Willi said he witnessed perhaps the “most memorable and gallant effort.”

Fife, now serving at RAF Lakenheath, England, scrambled off the helo to save two children who had fallen in the fast-moving water.

“Completely disregarding his own safety and without a tether, [Fife] immediately jumped into the dangerous swift water and went after the children. I didn’t see him come up at first and I knew that if he continued down the river, there was nothing I could do,” Willi wrote in his after-action report.

“Miraculously, [Fife] popped up from the water, retrieved the kids and secured them … tucked them under his arms and trudged through the rushing river and rotor wash back to the helicopter to safety. He saved their lives.”

jontzs@estripes.osd.mil

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