‘We were going into a known insurgent hotbed'
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Blout, a combat controller with the Air Force's Special Operations Command's 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, earned the Silver Star for fending off an onslaught of enemy fighters and preventing the loss of a medical evacuation aircraft, tasked with airlifting a wounded soldier during a firefight in 2012 in Afghanistan.
An Air Force recruiter tried to talk 19-year-old Michael Blout out of becoming a combat controller.
The washout rate in training — among the most rigorous in the Air Force — was about 90 percent at the time. The recruiter didn’t think it would be “a safe call,” Blout remembers being told.
The recruiter had it half right. It was a “hard road” to get established in the career field, said Tech. Sgt. Blout, now 31. But he made it.
The bigger challenges would come later, during six deployments in 12 years to Iraq and Afghanistan – and on one mission that Blout said was the most intense firefight of his career.
His actions on Oct. 23, 2012, could have been lifted from the script of a superhero flick, except there was no Hollywood ending. His comrade and friend, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Duskin, died that day from combat wounds. But Blout, who received the Silver Star for his actions, gave Duskin what he otherwise would not have had — a fighting chance to live.
Into the fight
The mission began in the dark on Oct. 22.
Blout and five Operational Detachment Alphas — small groups of Special Forces soldiers — were in the Chak Valley, Wardak province, in southeastern Afghanistan.
“Basically, we were going to a known insurgent hotbed looking for high-value targets,” Blout said.
Divided into teams, they spread out to the north and south of their objective area, separated by a sprawling apple orchard.
Around the middle of the day Oct. 23, Blout was with a team to the north, preparing to clear buildings, when word crackled over the radio that Duskin, with a team about a mile to the south, was down.
Duskin was a 42-year-old burly, gregarious Army Ranger known as “Big Mike.”
On his seventh combat tour, he was leading his team on a dismounted patrol south of the apple orchard when he encountered three enemy fighters armed with AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Duskin killed one of the men. The other two ran, and Duskin and four of his teammates gave chase.
They were led into ambush, and Duskin was felled by seven bullets.
When Blout heard the news, there was only one thing to do: Run to the fight.
Headed for Duskin, Blout led two Special Forces soldiers and six Afghan commandos on a heavy-footed, 10-to-12-minute-mile sprint in 80 pounds of gear. On the way, he radioed an AC-130 gunship flying overhead, seeking help with trying to pin down Duskin’s location. Blout also talked to the combat medic working on Duskin as he prepared a request for medical evacuation.
Blout and a senior Special Forces communications sergeant were shot at as they ran across an open field. The two jumped over a mud wall onto a narrow dirt path and found Duskin. The combat medic was working to keep him alive.
Blout and the communications sergeant hunkered down in front of Duskin to shield him from gunfire, while also returning fire.
But that wasn’t enough.
It was time to multitask — an ability in which combat controllers must excel. Blout began coordinating air strikes with the AC-130 gunship and an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter targeting the nearby enemy fighters.
Blout was also coordinating Duskin’s medical evacuation with an MH-60 Blackhawk, at one point returning to the open field under fire to mark the landing zone. Enemy fighters fired at him before directing their weapons at the helicopter. As the aircraft approached to within 300 feet, the barrage of gunfire was so heavy that Blout had to turn the bird around.
He said he knew if the helicopter went down, “that would just intensify an already bad situation.” He ratcheted up the air strikes and led six other men toward the enemy’s position, getting as close as 30 meters while returning fire. forcing the enemy fighters to suppress their attack on the Blackhawk.
“He came back around, put the bird down,” he said. “We got the Chief up there on board.”
With Duskin safely in the air, Blout’s team regrouped and pushed back toward the dirt path to pick up Duskin’s gear. Blout and a team sergeant took up the rear, returning fire as they withdrew. Running low on ammunition, they relied on the attack aircraft to keep the enemy fighters engaged as they left the area. They commandeered a vehicle and drove back to the reinforcements. None of the enemy fighters survived, Blout said.
Medics were able to stabilize Duskin in the air but he died later that day.
He believes his Silver Star belongs to Duskin.
“He’s the one who went out there and gave all that he had, literally.”