By Sgt. Stephanie van Geete, USA
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2006 – Nine Task Force Centaur aviators were among 21 U.S. soldiers and airmen recognized yesterday by the government of Turkmenistan for efforts in recovering a Turkmenistan Red Cross helicopter that crashed in eastern Afghanistan earlier this year. Aman Yaranov, Turkmenistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, thanked the troops for their actions in a ceremony here.
"On behalf of the Turkmenistan people and Turkmenistan government, I want to thank Bagram Air Base, its officers and the crew members for this operation," Yaranov said. "We know it wasn't your main task, (but) you responded to our request with professionalism and dignity. Without your participation, this operation would not have been possible." The Turkmenistan Airlines MI-8 HIP went down Jan. 20, carrying seven international aid workers on their way to Turkmenabad, Turkmenistan, after a humanitarian mission to earthquake-stricken Pakistan. Transportation officials from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan had been searching for the helicopter since it went missing, but did not find the crash site until June 1.
Because of the location of the downed helicopter, on the side of a steep mountain at 12,800 feet elevation, recovery efforts required a specialized team. Turkmen officials turned to Combined Joint Task Force-76 for help. Maj. Eric Benson, Task Force Centaur executive officer, was the CJTF-76 Rescue Coordination Center director at the time. "Once we were officially asked to perform this mission, we alerted our rescue team and began detailed planning within the organization," Benson said. "It took us 48 hours from mission receipt to completion."
Task Force Centaur provided the air transportation for the rescue operation, sending a UH-60 Blackhawk and a CH-47 Chinook to transport the recovery team and remains. Because of the high altitude and dangerous location of the crash site, the mission was complex and risky, Lt. Col. William Metheny, Task Force Centaur commander, said.
"We sent some of our most experienced aircrews, who knew exactly what the aircraft were capable of and their limitations," Metheny said. "It was amazing to watch them come together, put their heads into it and figure out the things that needed to be done, and creative solutions to overcome some of the obstacles for that particular site. It wasn't something that was just planned at the headquarters level and handed down; it was those crew members themselves bringing their experience and expertise."
This recovery mission was the first high-altitude, high-risk mission Task Force Centaur has completed in theater. Although missions like this are not what the Task Force came here focused to do, Metheny said, he and his troops are happy to help any way they can. "Our crews know they bring such a wide capability of skills that they could be asked to do anything," Metheny said. "I have no problem doing the missions that we're given, that we plan and train for, because our troops truly are very selfless and will accomplish whatever they possibly can to help any members of the coalition."
At the ceremony, Metheny accepted a plaque of appreciation from Yaranov on behalf of the base commander. "We are sad for you, your country and your loss, but honored that we were asked to do the mission and have the opportunity to help your country and the families who lost their loved ones," Metheny told Yaranov.
Benson agreed. "We were all honored to be able to bring closure for seven families in Turkmenistan," he said. Benson said the fact that Turkmenistan officials made a special trip "to look our aircrew members in the face and thank them" meant a lot to every soldier that participated. In addition to helping the families of the deceased, Benson said he hopes the U.S. role in the recovery mission sends a positive message to the international community. "The U.S. is over here doing good things in Afghanistan," he said.
(Army Sgt. Stephanie van Geete is assigned to Task Force Falcon.)