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Two harrowing US military rescues offer haunting portrait of Afghan war

Rescue pilots in Afghanistan describe flying five to 10 combat missions a day, on constant alert. Describing one mission, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor last week, Col. Christopher Barnett says:  'It was like the Alamo.'

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / May 22, 2012

Col. Christopher Barnett, then commander of the 34th Weapons Squadron.

US Air Force



Special Operations Forces were pinned down in the violent southern region of Kandahar when Air Force pararescuers got the call to come to their aid.

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The Air Force’s 34th Weapons Squadron’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) team, comprised of experienced helicopter pilots and combat medics known as pararescuers, had just arrived in Afghanistan.

But over the course of the next 24 hours, it would be in the midst of combat operations, after receiving a desperate call for rescue.

It was a pace that would continue throughout the unit's time in southern Afghanistan. For the next 80 days, it would be on alert 24 hours a day. During that time, crews flew a total of 550 combat missions, saving more than 300 lives, by the estimates of Col. Christopher Barnett, then the commander of the 34th Weapons Squadron. 

For most of his crew, that meant they were flying anywhere from five to 10 combat missions a day.

But in April 2009 came a call that was particularly dire: A US Army Green Beret unit in Helmand Province was pinned down under heavy attack from Taliban forces.

“These guys,” Colonel Barnett recalls, “could not get into their vehicles – could not, you know, move further down the road and were taking fire from really different directions. So they really couldn’t do a whole lot about it.”

A US military quick reaction force, QRF, had come in to try to relieve the Green Berets, but were soon pinned down with them.

Apache attack helicopters had also already tried to help these US forces, but because of heavy machine gun fire coming from nearby Taliban compounds, they “could not get close enough to where they could confirm where they enemy was,” recalls Maj. Brian Creel, who was flying the combat mission that day.

The B-1 bombers in the area could not help stave off the attack, either: Though they had dropped bombs, they could not attack the Taliban compound, “because they couldn’t confirm which compound it was and also the possibility of civilian casualties,” Major Creel explains. US troops may have been in jeopardy, too: The Taliban forces were “danger close” in military parlance – meaning in the course of dropping bombs, the pilots might kill not only enemy forces, but US soldiers as well.

The first job of the pararescuers on the scene, then, was to fly within 200 feet of the suspected Taliban compound in their Blackhawk helicopters. “We had to get low enough to where we could, no kidding, confirm that that’s where they were,” Creel says.

Once we did that, we turned back around and set ourselves up in a – in an L-attack pattern that we used to fix our guns forward and shoot forward,” he adds, “and focus all four of our machine guns into that one compound at the same time.”

This then gave the Green Berets and the QRF pinned down with them the chance to attack. “If you saw them jump up and storm that compound – I mean, they were still getting some fire,” Creel recalls. “They went in because they had to do it.”

The Green Berets were ultimately successful in taking the compound, thanks to help from Barnett, Creel, and the other CSARs.


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