'You've got to do everything you can to get the wounded off the battlefield'
Stars and Stripes
Air Medal with "V"
Air Medal with "V"
Most of the crew was asleep that morning, exhausted from flying medevac missions in Kandahar’s deadly Arghandab River Valley. It was late June, and the summer fighting season was raging.
The week had been harrowing, and the missions were piling up. Gunshot wounds, RPG attacks, limbs ripped from soldier’s bodies. They’d lost count of the wounded they’d pulled out.
None of that mattered when the early call sounded. An improvised explosive device had blown a soldier’s legs off, and another soldier had experienced traumatic brain injury. Within minutes, soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment were airborne, headed toward the notorious Pashmul South region.
Purple smoke billowed from the landing zone as the crew hovered over a small band of 1st Infantry Division soldiers, waiting with their wounded. Tree lines, mud walls and grape rows surrounded them, the perfect setting for an ambush. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Marcus Chambers slowed the helicopter for the landing. Gunfire erupted.
The attack continued as Chambers set the aircraft down and flight medic Staff Sgt. Garrick Morgenweck slid open the door to retrieve the wounded. When he stepped out, insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade from close range, striking a nearby mud wall, narrowly missing the helicopter.
Bullet fragments tore throughout the cabin and a mist of shrapnel caught Morgenweck in the face.
Pilot-in-command Capt. Chris Morisoli called the crew back and told Chambers to take off. Morgenweck rolled backward into the cabin, pulling the door shut as Chambers lifted into the sky.
The helicopter circled out of range while an Apache gunship fired on insurgents. Chambers followed the Apache in, but pulled back when the blast wave from another RPG shook the cabin.
Frustration gripped the crew as Chambers circled for a third attempt. Insurgents attacked with small-arms fire, which shook the rotor system and nearly hit crew chief Staff Sgt. Bruce Garrett. A bullet struck inches below his chest, knocking a ballistic plate into his knees. Bullet fragments tore throughout the cabin and a mist of shrapnel caught Morgenweck in the face.
Again they pulled away.
Morisoli checked in with the crew. Knowing the situation was dire, each member voted for a fourth attempt.
Morisoli followed the Apache on yet another gun run. The crew watched as soldiers huddled over the wounded.
As Morisoli closed in fast, he pulled up and rotated the aircraft by shifting into an unexpected decelerating turn over a mud wall, landing the nose of the helicopter just four feet from the wounded. As he looked down, Morisoli could see a soldier from the litter team looking up at him. If they weren’t under fire, he would never have landed so close.
Gunfire erupted as one last explosion blew in the distance. Morgenweck covered flight medic Sgt. Amanda Mosher with his M4 as she pushed out of the aircraft and guided the wounded on board.
Forty seconds later, the helicopter lifted off.
“If I had to go out and do that again, I probably couldn’t do it,” Morisoli said later about the landing. “It was the last shot we had to get in there. We had to make it work, and we had to be fast.”
According to Morisoli, determination is a common trait among medevac crews.
“The price of failure is too high. You’ve got to do everything you can to get the wounded off the battlefield,” Morisoli said. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
“It’s all about those guys on the ground, so if we have to go in there 10 times, I’ve got to put my fears aside because they’re counting on me,” he said. “I’m counting on them to go out there to fight the Taliban head to head, in close quarters. When they need medevac, we’re going in there.”
For their actions under fire on June 20, 2011, Morisoli and Chambers were each awarded the Air Medal with “V.” Garrett, Morgenweck and Mosher received Air Medals.
Both pilots struggle with the distinction.
“It’s a team effort,” Morisoli said. “It’s unfortunate that they weren’t recognized with the same award because the things they did were equally as important to us accomplishing the mission.”
While most of the crewmembers were close before — Morisoli, Garrett and Morgenweck had served together in Iraq — they now share a bond forged only in battle, and know they’re forever changed because of it.
“When I leave this unit,” Morgenweck said, “those are going to be the people, 40 years from now when I have Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, they’ll be the people I remember.”