News>Best friends, Academy grads earn Silver Stars
Maj. Philip Bryant, combat search and rescue pilot, was presented the
Silver Star medal at the 19th Air Force's inactivation ceremony Thursday at
Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Gen. Edward A. Rice, Jr., Air Education
Training Command commander, presented the third highest military decoration
to Bryant for his participation in a recovery mission of two U.S. Army
pilots who were downed in the Allasay Valley, an enemy controlled area east
of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan on April 23, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rich McFadden)
Tech. Sgt. Heath Culbertson, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron flight engineer, shows where a bullet entered then exited his helmet. Culbertson was uninjured when he was shot in the helmet during a mission to recover the pilots of a downed Army helicopter, April 23, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Erick Saks)
by Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
7/20/2012 - JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- It's interesting enough that two childhood best friends got to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy together, and that both of their fathers graduated from the same Academy together. The fact that they both became rescue helicopter pilots, and also were stationed in the same squadron in Japan is even more extraordinary.
But for both men to stand on a stage during a solemn military ceremony - and to both be presented the Silver Star for their acts of gallantry in combat -- the odds are almost astounding.
But that was the case last week when Maj. Philip Bryant and Maj. Joshua Hallada were recognized for their participation in a recovery mission of two U.S. Army pilots who were downed in the Allasay Valley, an enemy controlled area east of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, April 23, 2011.
"The people who do this mission are not common people," said Gen. Edward A. Rice, Commander of Air Education and Training Command, who presented the medals July 12 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. He cited the combat search and rescue member's commitment to leave no one behind, and ability to demonstrate "valor in the face of the enemy."
Hallada and Bryant, who are both HH-60G Pavehawk rescue helicopters pilots, first met as small children. "Our parents were friends," Hallada said. "We used to play together as toddlers." Both their fathers (Marc Hallada and Larry Bryant) graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1975.
Their fathers were stationed together as instructors at the Air Force Academy in the early 80s, which is where the bond of friendship began.
"We lived a block apart," Bryant said. "Our moms were good friends and still are good friends."
Bryant graduated in 2001 and Hallada in 2002. Their entire careers have spanned the 11 years of war since the United States entered Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Each has been deployed to Afghanistan three times, however the last deployment was the only one they were deployed together - from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan.
They had been in-country for a few months when the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron's tactical operations center received a report of a Fallen Angel - the term which signifies a downed aircraft. Within 10 minutes, the "Pedros" of the 83rd ERQS had two HH-60s airborne and enroute to the site where a coalition helicopter was reportedly down.
Hallada, flying Pedro 83, was the flight lead of the two-ship formation, with and Bryant as his wingman, and aircraft commander of Pedro 84. They quickly arrived on scene, approximately 20 miles from Bagram, and held about five miles away as they linked up with the other air assets in the area, including F-15E Strike Eagles, AH-64 Apaches and OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.
After the Army helicopter went down, one pilot had climbed several hundred feet to a ridge above the aircraft wreckage. This ridge is where Pedro 83, the lead aircraft, used the hoist to insert its "Guardian Angel" team composed of Maj. Jesse Peterson, combat rescue officer; Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte, team leader; and Tech. Sgt. Shane Hargis, team member.
"Once lead [Pedro 83] got the PJs on the ground, we found out the pilots had split up," said Bryant. "The pilot who had egressed told the PJs that the other pilot was unconscious and at the crash site." The pilot, sadly, had died.
Hallada directed Bryant's Pedro 84 aircraft to infiltrate his PJs to the crash site. Upon completion of the 180-foot hoist infil, Pedro 84 was engaged by enemy fire that seriously wounded the flight engineer, Tech. Sgt. James Davis, and caused damage to the aircraft.
"I had just turned off the hoist, and I was sliding back into my seat when the round came through the helicopter and hit me in the leg," said Davis. "They asked 'are you alright Jim' and I said 'no I'm bleeding pretty good here.'"
Bryant and his Pedro 84 crew rejoined Pedro 83, but determined they were no longer mission capable after the injury to the flight engineer. They headed back to Bagram to get advance care for Davis and to pick up another engineer to take man his position. During the flight back, Tech. Sgt William Gonzalez placed a tourniquet on Davis' leg, which, according to Bryant, probably saved his life. He also kept Davis alert during the entire flight to Bagram, Bryant noted.
Hallada's Pedro 83 then attempted to exfil his pararescue team and the survivor, but took enemy small arms fire that damaged the aircraft. Hallada flew multiple weapons passes, defending his teams on the ground and killing at least one insurgent. Hallada used overhead AH-64D Apache attack weapons teams as cover during the attempted rescue of his teams and the distressed pilots.
As the enemy fire began picking up, Hallada decided that they needed to get the PJ team and pilot off the ground as soon as possible.
"So we set ourselves up to come in for a hover similar when we first infilled them although much lower," said Major Hallada. "Being that it was a little lighter now, we brought it into a 20-foot hover over our team and the survivor."
As the pararescuemen and the engineer worked to get the survivor into the aircraft, enemy fire increased, threatening Pedro 83.
"The team started to hook up the survivor, and that's when the pilot started to call rounds off the one o'clock," said Senior Airman Michael Price, Pedro 83 flight engineer. "Someone called the go-around at that point, and I sheared the cable to stop from dragging them through the rocks."
Price used the guillotine-type device built into the hoist to cut the cable and prevent injury to the Airmen below. Hallada then brought his aircraft around and performed a one-wheel hover to pick up the survivor and his PJ team. When they lifted off, his aircraft took more fire which damaged the aircraft.
After obtaining a replacement crew member, Bryant and the Pedro 84 crew rejoined the fight and attempted extraction of one of the isolated pilots and his team who were now pinned down by enemy fire. Pedro 83 and AH-64s provided cover for the extraction, but Pedro 84 was engaged from both sides.
Later, Hallada and his Pedro 83 crew were forced to depart due to low fuel and aircraft damage. Bryant then coordinated with AH-64D Apache attack weapons teams to cover a single ship rescue. His aircraft was once again targeted and received heavy enemy rounds. Pedro 84 had to depart again due to low fuel.
While Pedro 83 and 84 were refueling, an 18-member Quick Reaction Force of soldiers from the Iowa Army National Guard were inserted by Army Blackhawks as a blocking force. One of those soldiers was killed in the fighting and another soldier was seriously wounded. A-10 attack aircraft also provided cover for the forces on the ground.
Hallada delivered the surviving pilot to care and transferred his crew to a fresh aircraft. Hallada and Bryant led their aircraft back three more times, having to go around each time due to heavy enemy fire. After heavy suppression by AH-64s, Pedro 83 flight was able to recover the deceased pilot and isolated PJ team and the seriously wounded Army National Guardsman.
Total team effort
Both Hallada and Bryant say they were humbled by the Silver Star, the third highest military decorations. But they credit their crews as well as Soldiers and Pararescuemen on the ground and other pilots in the air for the success of the mission.
"I was just the guy shaking the stick," said Major Hallada. "The guys in the back and on the ground were doing the shooting."
"Our co-pilots played a huge role, so the entire crew deserves credit," Hallada said. "We never could have accomplished this mission without the great work of co-pilots, flight engineers, gunners, PJs and attack assets."
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Heath Culbertson, who replaced the wounded Davis as flight engineer, was shot in the helmet, the bullet barely missing his head. A Pavehawk gunner, Gonzalez, was shot in the knee pad, with the bullet barley missing his knee. Pedro 83's Flight Engineer, Price, and gunner Senior Airman Justin Tite, also had bullets impact their aircraft near their positions. A bullet missed Bryant's head by mere inches.
"These men willingly continued to fly approaches back into fire all day, each time providing outstanding suppressive fire from their .50 caliber machine guns." Major Bryant said. "Tech. Sgt. Culbertson also masterfully worked a broken hoist at the end of the day, which enabled Pedro 84 to recover their PJs and the Army pilot."
Interestingly, Bryant noted, the other officer crew members who participated in the rescues were Air Force Academy graduates as well - Capt. Louis Nolting, co-pilot of Pedro 84, Capt. Elliot Milliken, co-pilot of Pedro 83, as well as Peterson, the combat rescue officer.
"Each of them performed extraordinary." Bryant said. "There were multiple instances, including during the 180 foot hoist, where I had to give Nolting the aircraft controls because he was in a better position to see and fly the aircraft. Every time Nolting did a superb job."
Hallada also praised another Academy grad, Maj. Andrew Gray, the squadron's director of operations, who directed the command and control of the mission from Bagram. "The entire ops center staff, to include intel and ops support, was a crucial element as well the maintainers who worked tirelessly before, during and especially after the mission to give us great aircraft and return them to the mission incredibly fast," Hallada said.
Given the danger that surrounded them all during the mission, Bryant noted that he and Hallada both believed that divine intervention played a role as well. "We are both convinced that there was a tremendous amount of divine intervention during our mission," he said.
The entire mission lasted about six hours. Sergeants Kline and Cenna, Pedro 84's PJs, spent about five and a half hours in the valley dodging bullets and the explosion of the aircraft. And while he didn't know whether or not he would make it out of the area alive, Kline said he knew that he would never have left without the downed pilot.
"We were going to do everything in our power to get him back," he said. "If I had to clip in and hold him, I would have. There was no way he wasn't coming back."
Prior to departing to have his injuries treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Davis expressed his pride in the actions of his squadron.
"We did what we do," said Davis. "We've got a motto for a reason, these things we do that others may live."
Editor's Note: 2nd Lt. Matthew Sanders from the 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs office from Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and Capt Erick Saks of the 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs office, Aviano Air Base, Italy, contributed to this report.
7/21/2014 11:56:23 PM ET I agree...Although to date 72114 this has not happened. All involved in this mission on those helicopters should recieve the Silver Star. It was not just the pilots but the entire crew that made this mission the success it was.
Virginia Leggett, Houston
10/20/2012 2:19:13 AM ET All of the men involved in this mission are heroes in every sense of the word but everyone on that flight crew deserved silver stars not just the pilots. Everyone played a pivotal role in getting everyone out of the area. I hope that the distinguished flying crosses that were given to everyone else get upgraded to the silver stars that they should be.