July 2: Trading places in the line of fire
Sgt. 1st Class Richard Miller had come under fire so many times that he had accepted the possibility that he might one day be killed here. On July 2, he thought his reckoning with fate had arrived.
Miller, 40, of San Antonio, and crew chief Sgt. Derrick Costine, 28, of Clarksville, Tenn., were on duty when Task Force Shadow got the call: U.S. soldiers were pinned down by heavy Taliban fire with one man badly wounded near Combat Outpost Terra Nova in the Arghandab Valley northwest of Kandahar city.
Within minutes, Miller and Costine, along with two pilots and a flight surgeon, took off in a Black Hawk helicopter. It was just after 3 p.m., and their fifth mission of the day. Shortly after takeoff, soldiers on the ground reported they were unable to move their casualties to a suitable landing zone. Miller would have to descend from the helicopter by mechanical hoist to retrieve the wounded soldier.
The tricky procedure is used when trees or other obstacles prevent a helicopter from landing.
“It’s really a last opportunity,” said Miller. “It’s something we try not to do.”
“I wasn’t looking forward to it,” recalled Costine.
They arrived on site within 15 minutes, and the Black Hawk went into a hover at 60 feet, right above the trees. Below them was an opening no more than 10 feet across.
“It was just a little triangle,” Miller said. “They literally put me down in a little hole.”
With Miller’s harness attached to a metal hook on a thick wire cable, Costine used the winch to lower him to the ground. When the medic was 10 feet off the ground, Taliban machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades opened up from what seemed every direction.
The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming, Miller recalled.
“I’ve accepted the fact that I might die out here,” he said. “I decided that day might be my day.”
Bullets pinged off the aircraft, and rockets whizzed by as Costine quickly lowered Miller the rest of the way down. The helicopter moved out of the kill zone, as Miller made his way to his patient.
The wounded soldier was not in good shape.
“He was missing his left leg, and his right leg was just dangling,” he said.
The soldier needed surgery fast. A clear landing zone had been identified about 200 yards away, but with the heavy fire, there was no way to get him there.
As the Black Hawk came in for another hover, Miller put the soldier on a plastic stretcher and secured him to the hoist cable. Costine began bringing him up, but the helicopter again took fire. A bullet pinged off the tail rotor. If the rotor were disabled, the helicopter would crash, very likely killing the crew and the patient. There was only one choice.
“I told them to get out,” Miller said.
The helicopter flew out of the kill zone, with the wounded soldier dangling on the hoist cable. Miller told the crew he would make his way to the other landing zone.
But as the Black Hawk moved out of the area, the patient began swinging badly. Costine screamed into his headset for the pilots to stop and hover.
“I was freaking out,” Costine remembered. “I thought I was going to drop him. It was a scary feeling.”
The patient was in shock when they pulled him aboard, but the flight surgeon managed to stabilize him. Now the problem was how to retrieve Miller.
The pilots swung around to pick him up. Costine wanted to do another hoist, but Miller told them he was headed to the alternate landing zone, some 200 yards to the north.
A small group of soldiers escorted Miller as far as a river. Another U.S. unit was on the opposite bank. Miller swam across as the two elements provided cover.
Miller saw a U.S. soldier pop his head over a low mud wall and wave him forward. He sprinted and took cover next to the soldier. He explained that he needed a place for the Black Hawk to land so he could get out.
“You might not want to land here,” Miller recalled the soldier saying, explaining that his element, too, had been taking fire. Miller told him he had nowhere else to go.
As the Black Hawk swooped in to pick him up, Taliban machine gun fire erupted. From aboard the aircraft, Costine saw soldiers firing across the landing zone at insurgents.
“Climb! Climb! Climb!” he remembered shouting.
By the time the Black Hawk swung around again, the U.S. troops, along with Apache gunships, had laid down enough suppressive fire that the helicopter was able to land.
“As soon as the wheels were down, the medic sprang up, and as soon as I opened the door, he dove in,” Costine said. “As soon as I closed the door, we hauled ass out of there.”
The incident had lasted maybe 15 to 20 minutes, Costine said. They got the patient safely to the military hospital at Kandahar Air Field. He survived. Miller and Costine were later recommended for awards for bravery.
Miller shrugs off talk of decorations. “I was just doing my job,” he said.
The 21-year Army veteran says he would do it all over again if it meant saving another wounded soldier’s life, but he’s not eager to relive the experience.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared,” he said.
— Drew Brown