1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment pilots receive honors
Stars and Stripes November 11, 2004
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MACKENZIE, Iraq — Though all soldiers in Iraq face danger, only a few receive awards for bravery.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Almous Irby, who flies an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter for Troop E of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, has earned a deuce.
At a ceremony here Tuesday north of Balad, Maj. Gen. John Batiste pinned not one, but two, Air Medals with Valor on Irby’s chest for actions in separate engagements in Baqouba on April 10 and June 24. Another Troop E pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric Bushmaker, 32, also received the award for his conduct on April 10 in what they are calling “Battle of Baqouba.”
“It’s kind of a surprise, but it feels good, obviously,” said Irby, 36, of Neptune, N.J. “It doesn’t remind you of a happy event.”
During the uprising, ground forces from the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 6th Field Artillery called on the two-seat Kiowas — attached to the unit as a quick-reaction force — about 2:30 p.m. to flush out a group of enemy fighters crouched in a palm tree grove.
The ground troops had planned to challenge the guerrillas directly but couldn’t because their main gun malfunctioned.
So the Kiowa pilots flew one pass after another directly into the fierce ground fire. They maneuvered while firing the mounted .50-caliber machine guns as well as aiming hand-held M4 rifles straight down out the helicopters’ open windows, swooping in as low as 20 feet. A set of power lines in front of the grove made the attacks more treacherous.
“It was a standing firefight,” Irby said. “As soon as one aircraft would peel off, the second would come in right behind.”
The battle lasted about 25 minutes, until the rifle fire stopped. Ground troops later found four insurgents dead in the grove, and blood trails indicating many others had been wounded. No one in the helicopters was injured, and none of the Kiowas had a single-bullet hole.
“There was no hesitation. We just went right to work,” Irby said. “Later, when we realized how close they’d gotten to us and none of us got hurt, it was pretty surrealistic.”
The Battle of Baqouba was the first real combat for Troop E, but there would be plenty more.
On June 24, Irby was again on the quick-reaction force. Near Forward Operating Base Gabe in Baqouba, one of the 1st Infantry Division’s unmanned aerial vehicles spotted individuals handing out weapons from a van.
Irby and his wingman tracked down the van, but the driver heard them coming and stopped at a house. The guerrillas scattered. Some of them ran inside and began firing rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at the Kiowas.
“We couldn’t just lay waste to the house, because we didn’t know if innocents were inside,” Irby said.
But he shot up all three vehicles outside with his .50-caliber machine gun and killed four guerrillas outside with a direct rocket hit. Tracking down a van that had driven away from the house, he hovered low and stopped the vehicle. The van held a couple and three children — innocents whose house apparently had been commandeered by guerrillas. Irby let them go.
Now that they are certified heroes, Irby and Bushmaker say they realize bravery in combat isn’t just the kind of guts and glory portrayed in the movies.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” Bushmaker said. “Something takes over. You’re just too busy to think about anything else.”