August 2012 was an ugly month for coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Fifty-three servicemembers from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, France and New Zealand lost their lives. If not for U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Wells and his fellow crewmembers, the number would have been 63.
On Aug. 4, 2012, then-Senior Airman Wells was manning a heavy machine gun as part of an 83rd Rescue Squadron unit sent to Bamiyan province to rescue a group of New Zealand and coalition soldiers who had been involved in heavy fighting.
The crews’ actions over the next seven hours, as two of the squadron’s HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters performed several rescue drops, would earn each crewmember the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“What we did that day was the same thing anybody else would have done,” Wells said. “We were just ordinary guys in combat rescue put into an extraordinary situation.”
“If [the mission] would have dropped an hour earlier, it would have been the other shift,” the Seattle native said. “They would have been the ones doing these interviews and accepting the medals.”
On this mission, Wells was flying with Capt. Matthew Pfarr, Capt. Michael Kingry and Capt. Gavin Johnson, as well as Tech. Sgt. Scott Lagerveld in two Pave Hawks, calls signs Pedro 83 and Pedro 84.
“Pedro” is the call sign given to the Air Force crews of pilots, aerial gunners, flight engineers and pararescue jumpers who have become famous for their daring rescues in some of the most dangerous places.
The two helos had been called to a small valley, too far from anywhere to refuel. For four hours, both crews would cycle between picking up wounded troops, dropping them off at the nearest medical facility, briefly refueling and then starting the process over again — all while dodging enemy fire and unleashing suppressive fire of their own.
In order to be able to pick up the wounded and take them to safety, the crews were forced to purge as much fuel as possible. The dangerously low fuel levels would quickly become a deep concern.
Wells’ bird, Pedro 84, turned northward to return to the nearest refueling base as Pedro 83 picked up its last round of casualties. It seemed like the day was finally coming to a close.
“As we were taking off up to the north, [Pedro 83] came over the radio, telling us to cease fire,” Wells said. “Right before the radio cut off, we heard the gunfire from their bird. At that moment you could have heard a pin drop in the helicopter. We were all thinking the same thing, ‘What’s going on back there?’ ”
Wells and his crew quickly returned to aid the other crew, engaging in an intense battle against five enemy positions. In Wells’ award citation, it says that he “provided suppressive fire, protecting his wingman as he maneuvered away from the enemy.”
Although the fight was only 10 minutes, it was enough to drain their fuel to the point where neither helicopter could make it back to the nearest base.
But flying high overhead was a daring HC-130 Hercules crew, the aircraft used by the military for midair refueling of military aircraft. The “Herc” had been circling at high altitude throughout the mission, as a last resort if the helicopters ran out of fuel.
As Wells and his crew were discussing the option to land in the dangerous valley, Wells looked out his window and saw their saving grace. The Hercules was dropping in behind them in a sharp, diving turn.
Listening to the radio traffic, the Herc crew knew both birds weren’t going to make it back to base without a refuel.
“In training, they’re a lot further away and making these big slow turns,” Wells explained, mimicking the motion with his hands. “These guys knew we were in trouble and they came in looking like fighter jets. It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.”
Refueled and safe to get their wounded passengers to the medical facility, their long day had finally come to an end.
Wells and the rest of the crew saved 10 critically wounded troops and performed the rescues without losing critical medical response time or putting anyone else at risk with an emergency landing.
Wells might have earned the military highest military aviation award for his actions that day, but he said it’s all part of a day’s work.
“That day it was just like if somebody was hurting your little brother, you gotta go save him,” he said. “That’s our motto: ‘These things we do so that others may live.’”