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LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Iraq (5/25/2007) - Four pilots from Company B, 1st Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment (Attack), 36th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), have received the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and extraordinary achievement while flying a combat mission in Ramadi, Iraq. The award was presented to the pilots at Hardened Aircraft Shelter 9 on April 16.

Basically a Texas Army National Guard unit, the 36th CAB includes some 2,500 National Guard Soldiers from 44 states.

Earning the award were 1st Lt. Matthew Salo, of the Texas National Guard, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Stacy, Chief Warrant Officer 4 William "Dub" White and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Marcus Moore, of the Missouri National Guard. The four distinguished themselves by their actions in Ar Ramadi on Dec. 19, 2006, during a mission to provide air cover for Coalition Forces (U.S. Marines working with Iraqi army soldiers) who were establishing an observation post within the city.

The AH-64 Apache helicopter pilots searched for insurgents from the air while the forces were on the ground moving from building to building, clearing the way and looking for the best location to set up an observation post. Within seconds of one Coalition Force squad entering a building, the pilots heard over the radio that an improvised explosive device (IED) had detonated. Lieutenant Salo said several Iraqi army soldiers were hurt, and most of the squad's communications equipment had been damaged or destroyed.

The ground troops continued clearing the building, and set up a perimeter around it. About 40 minutes later, another IED went off. The Marines on the ground decided that they had to move the casualties out of the building and needed to call in a casualty evacuation. A third IED exploded and the enemy began firing at the Marines still inside the building.

With the Coalition Forces having limited communications, the troops on the ground had no way of letting the tactical operations center back at Camp Ar Ramadi know the situation. So the Apaches became a radio relay between the ground forces and the command post many miles away. Lieutenant Salo said enemy fire seemed to be coming from everywhere.

"We couldn't identify where the fire was coming from in that urban environment, but we thought we could draw some fire away from the ground guys, make some noise and keep the bad guys' heads down," Lieutenant Salo said. "That's when we started getting shot at the first time."

Low on fuel, taking fire and providing a vital communications link, the Apaches stayed long enough to allow the HMMWV convoy to evacuate the wounded Soldiers before heading back to Camp Corregidor, Iraq, to refuel. While assessing battle damage, Chiefs White and Moore discovered they had taken enemy fire to the aircraft's tail wheel, belly and transmission. Lieutenant Salo and Chief Stacy sustained damage to their helicopter's flight systems. All four pilots could have determined that their aircraft were not safe to fly and headed back to LSA Anaconda, but they all decided to go back into the firefight and continue the mission.

"We knew the mission was vital and we had to go back in," Lieutenant Salo said.

Within minutes of returning to support the Marines, the Apaches again began taking fire from the insurgents. At this time, Lieutenant Salo and Chief Stacy saw one of a helicopter pilot's worst nightmares coming straight for them - a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). They banked away, saw the airburst of the RPG miss them, and flew back into the flight to continue monitoring the radios for the ground guys.

"The Marines were obviously in the middle of it and pretty nervous," Chief Moore said. "Since we were able to talk to them, we could relay the situation to their command post, which was finally able to dispatch a patrol to get out there and establish a relay station for them -- providing additional support."

Once the wounded Coalition Forces members were on their way out of the area and headed to safety, the Apaches left their station to return to the Forward Area Refueling Point at Corregidor to get more fuel and access damage to their aircraft. This time, damage was found in a rocket pod of the Apache flown by Chiefs White and Moore.

Since the mission was not complete and Coalition Forces were still in harm's way, the 36th CAB Soldiers returned to the heart of the battle. The Marines had their observation post operational by then. With more casualties having been incurred, the Marines needed to leave the area. Similar to the "Mogadishu mile" executed by Rangers in the movie Blackhawk Down, the Marines made a run for it on foot. With the Apache pilots providing security and cover, the Coalition Forces were able to safely get back to their base.

The Apache pilots never fired a shot during the entire mission. "We couldn't identify where the enemy fire was coming from, and there were civilians all over the place," Lieutenant Salo said, referring to the Rules of Engagement that require U.S. Armed Forces to have positive identification of the enemy engaging in either a hostile act or exhibiting hostile intent.

"This is a major city; it was in the middle of the day, and about the only thing we could do was provide cover for the Marines by getting over the top of them," the lieutenant explained. "[We had to] keep an eye out and draw the enemy's attention away while the Marines got out of the city."

Chief Stacy said the toughest part of the mission was actually identifying the people doing the shooting.

"The enemy doesn't have any dead giveaways or fire any tracer rounds," Chief White said.

Lieutenant Salo added, "The enemy doesn't move in columns out in the middle of the desert; this is urban warfare, everyone and no one is a target."

These Apache crews have worked on several occasions with the same Marines they supported on that particular day. They know each other very well. E-mail excerpts from the Marines involved said that if the Apache pilots hadn't been there, many more casualties could have been incurred.

"Someday I'll get to meet those brave Marines," Chief White said. "The ground guys are in the thick of the battle every day, and we just come in to help them out when we can."

A few days later, the same aircrews were back in Ramadi, providing the same type of air coverage for the ground troops there.

"This is our job," Chief White said. "Protecting the heroes on the ground is what we love to do."


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