KATTERBACH, Germany — Capt. Janel Bradley stood somberly in her medical evacuation flight suit as the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment remembered a fallen friend.
Bradley’s air ambulance crew from the 45th Medical Company had been summoned a few nights earlier. The unit, deployed to Afghanistan from its base in Katterbach, flew two UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopters from Camp Salerno to pick up four soldiers. Three Americans and one Afghan had been hurt in a remote border canyon.
One of the Americans already had died. The crews later learned his name: Spc. Pat Tillman, the NFL football player who gave up a fat contract to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With his death, one year ago Friday, he became America’s latest soldier-hero.
Never before had Bradley been invited to a service for a soldier whom she’d airlifted.
“We felt uncomfortable, because we weren’t part of the unit. But for some reason, it made them feel better to know we were there,” Bradley, 26, of Pipersville, Pa., recalled this week. “It was definitely an honorable thing just to be able to participate.”
Bradley and her crew mates knew of the heavy media coverage of Tillman’s death back home. But they were struck by the simplicity of the Rangers’ remembrance in the field.
“He was another member of the team,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tom Wallis, 33, of Fayetteville, N.C., who commanded the other Black Hawk that night. “It wasn’t ‘Pat Tillman, the superstar football player.’ It was ‘Pat Tillman, our buddy, the Ranger.’”
Aside from the famous casualty, the run was like any of the hundreds the air ambulance crew had completed during its nine-month Afghanistan mission: a successful flight, punctuated by moments of stress and danger.
Bradley commanded the 18-soldier, three-aircraft slice of the 45th that arrived in Afghanistan in September 2003. The rest of the unit would deploy to Iraq three months later.
By the following spring, Bradley’s crew had been tested by the hot, high-altitude conditions that make flying in Afghanistan so dangerous.
Just after supper on April 22, 2004, Bradley’s team received a report of injured soldiers. In minutes, she had assembled two four-person crews and put the birds in the air.
They arrived quickly at a narrow canyon. Only one Black Hawk could land. Wallis swooped in first, guided through the blackness by an infrared strobe. He picked up two injured men. Staff Sgt. Jay Shearer, 28, of San Diego, Wallis’ flight medic, stabilized them and applied pressure dressings. Neither of the injured men spoke of their mission, and Shearer didn’t ask.
Bradley’s Black Hawk followed and picked up two body bags: the Afghan soldier, and Tillman.
When they reached the hospital, her crewmembers were told not to open the bags. They wouldn’t have anyway, but the warning struck them as odd. Guards surrounded the room where Tillman’s body was taken. Learning his identity the next morning, they understood why. No one wanted the body of this famous soldier to land in enemy hands.
In July, Bradley’s team would go home to Germany. They would later learn Tillman had been killed in a panicky barrage of bullets by platoon mates who mistook the Afghan with him for an enemy fighter. The particulars didn’t diminish his folk-hero status.
They remain humbled that Tillman’s Rangers honored them with an invitation to his closed memorial service. They are proud that the whirring of their helicopter blades could give relief to troops in the field.
“The medevac mission is kind of bittersweet,” Bradley said. “It’s rewarding. But you know for someone out there, it’s the worst day of their lives.”