'As soon as I opened the door, you could see the bullet pecks'

The enemy’s aim was off.

And that was lucky for Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Day, because not even bullets whizzing by his head could deter him from dropping off badly needed emergency supplies for a group of soldiers under fire in a remote valley in Afghanistan.

Day estimates it took him about two minutes to unload the provisions, after which he jumped back into the bullet-pocked Black Hawk helicopter as it took off. It was a harrowing 120 ticks on the clock that earned Day a hero’s recognition for the lives the Army says he saved that day.

Six bullet holes were later found on the helicopter, and at least three rocket-propelled grenades missed the aircraft.

At a December ceremony at Fort Rucker, Ala., the 35-year-old aviation instructor received the Air Medal with “V.”

Day “displayed complete disregard for his own safety,” against an enemy with superior firepower, his medal citation said.

Day, part of the Rucker-based Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization, said there was nothing special about May 25, 2011. It was just another day on the job, part of a 20-day deployment to Afghanistan — his fourth — to assess and assist the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade from Fort Drum, N.Y. For this mission, he was evaluating the crew chief and door gunner, but also acting as an additional crewmember who could be called on to assist in other ways.

When “we fly with them, we are regular crewmembers. … We are going to do the mission that they do,” Day said. “In the backdrop, we’re evaluating the unit to see how they’re doing.”

The UH-60 Black Hawk crewmembers — two pilots, a crew chief, a door gunner and Day — were flying a “ring route” shuttling passengers and supplies to different posts in Regional Command-East when the call came in for a more urgent task: Infantry soldiers in a firefight were running short on water, food and ammunition.

“We headed out to go help those guys out,” Day said. “They kept me on to help push the supplies out, just to limit our ground time.”

The supplies were stuffed into bags, called “speedballs,” according to an Army news release about the incident.

When the helicopter landed, Day unhooked his communications gear and jumped out to unload the supplies amid a barrage of bullets.

“As soon as I opened up the door, you could see the bullet pecks hitting the ground,” Day said.

He didn’t look around to see if he could spot the shooters or the soldiers; he was focused on getting the bags out as quickly as possible.

But with bullets hitting the helicopter, Day couldn’t move fast enough. The crew chief and others tried to call Day back in, he said.

Unhooked from his communications gear, Day couldn’t hear them. The only sounds he noticed were those made by the bullets hitting the helicopter and the ground, he said.

“I just kept unloading the supplies until I actually felt the helicopter start kind of taking off,” he said. “I jumped in and we took off.”

Six bullet holes were later found on the helicopter, and at least three rocket-propelled grenades missed the aircraft, according to the Army news release.

Back aboard, Day said, he was greeted by a range of reactions to the tense situation, from panic to laughter.

After he had time to think about it, Day said that it appeared the shooters were targeting him, and not just the Black Hawk. But aborting the mission was never an option in his mind, Day said.

The soldiers in need were far from any bases where they could get additional supplies, Day said. If they ran out of food and ammunition, he said, “that’s bad stuff.”

Col. Jessie O. Farrington, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, said Day’s “professionalism and steady character put routine into the not-so-routine of the daily high-risk operations our soldiers are currently engaged in overseas.”

Day deflects any praise.

“I don’t want to take anything away from it, but there were a lot of people that did the right thing that day,” he said. “They deserve some recognition also.”

His 7-year-old daughter, however, is impressed.

“[She] thought it was cool I got a medal,” Day said.


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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2012