Everything seemed calm as the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter descended toward the pinned-down troops.
When three pararescuemen, or “PJs,” dropped to the ground, however, all that changed.
Leaving their perch in the chopper the PJs made their way through the dust and sudden hail of bullets to a mud wall where American and Afghan infantrymen were sheltering from the barrage.
“As soon as we hit the ground, that’s when it all started for us,” said Staff Sgt. James Dougherty.
The troops behind the wall were members of a platoon that had been ambushed in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold. Three Americans and one Afghan soldier lay wounded as the PJs came to their aid.
Members of the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing’s 103rd Rescue Squadron, the three men on the ground were among six PJs who would receive the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for their actions Dec. 10, 2012.
While theirs is a mission of mercy, elite pararescuemen go in heavily armed.
Flying in on two Pave Hawk rescue helicopters with the call signs Pedro 61 and Pedro 62, the team dropped into a “hot” landing zone under heavy fire.
After leaving Pedro 62, Tech. Sgt. Anthony Yusup braved ongoing gunfire and stayed in the open to direct the treatment, according to an account of the engagement provided by the New York state government.
As Dougherty and then-Senior Airman Christopher Petersen began to treat the injured soldiers, they threw their bodies between their patients and the rocket-propelled grenades that exploded nearby.
The three other PJs were dropped by Pedro 61. Capt. Ronnie Maloney, Senior Master Sgt. Erik Blom and Staff Sgt. Matthew Zimmer ran more than 60 yards across exposed ground to aid the injured soldiers.
The guardsmen labored to help an American soldier who had lost his legs and an arm in an IED blast, as well as helped treat the other injured men, who had gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
Maloney, the Combat Rescue officer, dodged an incoming RPG and directed air support by the circling Pave Hawks and a pair of Army Kiowa Warrior OH-58 helicopter gunships, which poured machine-gun and rocket fire into insurgent positions.
While on the ground for only about 12 minutes, it seemed like a lifetime for the troops under fire.
“Prior to that mission we were picking people up from relatively safe environments, so we were in and out in a few minutes,” Yusup said. “As soon as we were on the ground this time it was clear we were going to be there longer.”
Members of the team provided covering fire of their own as others helped the troops move the wounded soldiers to the waiting helicopters. All four were airlifted back to Kandahar Airfield, where Army Staff Sgt. Wesley Williams, who had lost three limbs, died.
“It’s hard to be a pararescueman, but these guys live it and breathe it,” Lt. Col. Shawn Fitzgerald, commander of the 103rd Rescue Squadron, told Stars and Stripes. “When a mission like this comes along, it validates all the training and work they’ve done up to that point. When it hits the fan these guys are ready to go, and this mission proved it.”
When asked what stood out to them about that day, members of the team described experiences with the men they helped.
Zimmer recalled being thanked by one of the injured soldiers. Yusup said he was struck by one of the injured men who, after being evacuated, started crying as he asked about the condition of his wounded friend. For Dougherty, such missions remind him that he is often on the ground for only a short time while the troops he supports must stay out on the battlefield.
Maloney, Zimmer, Petersen and Dougherty are full-time members of the 106th Rescue Wing, while Blom and Yusup are part-time.
Before transferring to the Air National Guard in 2008, Maloney, 43, served as an enlisted soldier in the Army and an officer in the Army National Guard, where he deployed to Iraq in 2004.
Zimmer, 31, joined the Air Force in 2001 and taught survival, evasion, resistance and escape practices at Fairchild Air Force Base for five years.
In May he received a second Bronze Star with “V” for a separate mission in Afghanistan in February 2012 during which he braved “smoke, flames and randomly detonating ordnance” to save the life of a Marine by helping to cut a hole in the injured man’s throat and inserting a breathing tube.
While the small group of servicemembers who make up the 103rd come from diverse backgrounds, they are all unified by their goal.
“We just want to do the mission,” Zimmer said.
A veteran of more than 85 combat missions in Afghanistan, Petersen, 29, joined the Guard in 2008. The USO named him National Guardsman of the Year for 2013 and he was a guest of New York Congressman Tim Bishop at the 2014 State of the Union address. He is now a staff sergeant.
Dougherty, 26, serves as an element leader in the 103rd Rescue Squadron and has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He described his unit as “close-knit.”
“You often know what somebody is going to do before he does it,” Dougherty said.
Blom, 38, is a Suffolk County police officer and a veteran of the Army and the Air Force. He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A former Army Ranger who deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Yusup, 31, joined the Guard after leaving the Army in 2003. When he received his citation he was studying nursing in college.
“I think all of us would rather not get recognized for it,” Yusup said of the mission. “We all know what we did that day, we all just did our jobs.”