Published: Wednesday, 30 September 2009 03:23
Written by Camilla Fuhr Nilsson
Note: I asked Danish journalist Camilla Fuhr Nilsson to write a couple of stories about the Air Force Pedros. After publication of her first installment, she emailed from Afghanistan, surprised to have gotten “thank you” notes from readers. As a journalist, Camilla had never gotten “thank yous” before. In the about five years I have covered the wars, it is safe to say that British and American service members, their families and others, have thanked me 100% of the time, for each of hundreds of dispatches. That would be tens of thousands of thank yous…maybe more. If not for those thank yous, I would have quit after just a few months in combat. The power of a sincere “thank you” can never be measured. And now Camilla’s second story:
By Camilla Fuhr Nilsson
Published: 30 September 2009
“These things we do that others may live” is the current motto of the US Air Force combat search and rescue team, or Pedro as they are called when deployed to Afghanistan. They fly into the battlefield with their smooth Pave Hawk helicopters and evacuate the wounded infantry soldiers and Marines. On a recent evacuation of two Danish soldiers in the middle of a battle with the Taliban, the Viking ancestors made a memorable difference to the 129th American Air Force Pedros crew.
It was a hot day in June even though it was still early in the morning. The traditionally dry heat of the southern Afghan desert, combined with the humidity of the green vegetation known as the Green Zone around the Helmand River, made the Danish infantry soldiers from the Danish Royal Husars drip with sweat as they patrolled in the green fields with heavy equipment and body amour. The squad, also known as Charlie Coy, soon got engaged in a heavy battle with Taliban fighters. Two Danish soldiers were shot by the Taliban and the medic called for evacuation—the so-called medevac. The American Pedro team 129th responded to the call.
Major Mat Wenthe, the detachment commander of the team, recalls the 25th of June rescue:
“The weather was fine that morning, so we only had to worry about the battle when we landed. The Danes were on the ground when we arrived. The B1 bomber was on station in the air already and the Norseman call sign on the ground and in the forward operating base nearby. There were two different call signs. One was talking about the TIC—troops in contact—and another was talking to us. On one side there was a TIC and the soldiers were receiving fire. So we knew what we had to deal with.”
The ongoing battle between the Danes and the Taliban meant that the Major and his team had to land in what they call the hot LZ. That means the landing zone is still a battle zone and there is a huge risk they’ll be caught up in the middle of bullets and mortar bombs flying through the air. Approximately twenty percent of the rescues are in a hot landing zone and the rest of the missions are fairly routine.
“There was enemy contact still going on. When we arrive to a pick up zone, we usually ask where the enemy is and what and where the casualties are. That way we’ll have an up-to-date assessment of the situation. And we knew we would be landing in a TIC,” Major Wenthe explains.
Alpha Bravo Charlie rescues
The three different categories of casualty assessment are Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. The call from the Danish medics was an alpha which means the wounded are in a critical condition and require urgent rescue. So even though the Danish soldiers were in the Charlie Coy squad, their casualties were Alpha.
Because of the situation on the ground, the Pedro 36 crew on one of the helicopters asked for smoke from the soldiers on the ground.
“The Norsemen secured the LZ. We were able to move in and pick them up. There were two casualties—one soldier was hit in the shoulder and one in the leg. The guy with the gunshot in the leg walked to the helicopter by himself which we thought was pretty amazing actually. We were all pretty impressed,” Mat Wenthe laughs, recalling the situation.
The other crew members from that flight nods--recognizing the event. They remember the Danish Viking, who made his way to the helicopter by himself.
“Dude that was wild”, says Tommy, a PJ—a pararescue jumper.
“Seriously I don’t know why the Danes are better at it than the other countries, but they are better in the way they call in the rescue, the way they speak out there, calm and everything.” He shakes his head, almost in disbelief.
The crew wanted to limit time on the ground and was off in 30 seconds.
“We try to get out fast to be safe. The PJs jump out and grab the patients, and we are on our way,” Mat says. “As we were leaving the area, the Danish Platoon Commander—I think he was—on the ground said to us: ‘Thank you Pedro, take good care of my men.’ They didn’t think we were gonna get them because it was a hot landing zone.”
Worst case scenario training
The Pedro crew is originally trained to pick up US Air Force pilots who are being shot down. They train for worst case scenario and how to evacuate a landing zone in the middle of firefights.
“It’s definitely a morale boost to the people on the ground, that we’ll land in any kind of situation and any weather. We are the only air force that guarantees we’ll try. So on the ground, that makes the pilots know that we’ll be there, and we apply that to the medevacs we do here. The troops on the ground know we’ll help them engage from the chopper if needed,” Mat Wenthe says.
On the 25th of June the team took the two soldiers to the hospital in Camp Bastion—the large base in the middle of the desert. The day after the rescue, the Pedros received a letter from the Danish platoon.
“The letter came thanking us for what we did. Normally it’s about the injured when we receive a thank you, but this letter proved that we can make a difference on the ground too. It made an impact on us, that he wrote that we had made a difference after we left the battlefield, because that’s not our primary goal.”
The letter stated that the Pedro crew had bravely inspired the men, because they landed under difficult circumstances in the middle of a firefight between the Danes and the Taliban. A bravery that made the Danish soldiers motivated and strong enough to win the fight.
“It was awesome to see that what we do inspired other people on the ground. And the fact that it was the Danes, you know the Vikings, huge, tall, and blonde, that’s pretty bad ass. We’ve been hearing what they do out there, and to receive that letter from the Vikings was good,” says Mat Wenthe, and looks like he met the original Vikings on the 25th.
Viking reputation still stands
The American crew still recalls all the events surrounding the rescue because the soldiers were Danish, and because they had heard the reputation the Danish men had on the battlefield, both historically and in Helmand.
“They are pretty laid-back when they are out there. So we always picture them as huge and blonde and badass wearing helmets with horns,” Major Wenthe says with a smile.
Some of the contents of the thank-you letter the American crew received has now been translated into Latin. They plan to make a badge with the inscription “Fortis incito”—“to inspire bravery”—when they return to the States. But from this tour they’ll always remember the Norsemen they rescued on June 25th.
The present Pedro team—129th—arrived to Camp Bastion on June 5th and has since had 400 rescue missions and helped save 215 allied soldiers’ lives. Their task is to evacuate soldiers to the field hospitals in the south of Afghanistan in under an hour in all kinds of weather.
The two wounded Danish soldiers are both doing well. The soldier that was shot in the leg was quickly back on the job. The other soldier—the one with a severe gunshot in the left upper arm—has lost a piece of the triceps muscle, hence his strength is not as strong as before the injury.
Both the Danish Norsemen team seven and the American 129th Pedro crew have now redeployed to their respective countries. The callsigns has been changed to avoid endangering the lives of the Danish soldiers.