Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 1, 2008 - A 1st Cavalry Division AH-64D Longbow Apache pilot got word that two of his friends, fellow pilots, were shot down during a fierce battle in Najaf, a city in Iraqi army control south of Baghdad, Jan. 28, 2007. Not thinking of his personal safety and facing an unknown enemy force, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Zachary Johnson sprang into action, which resulted in him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at the Fort Hood Catering and Conference Center exactly a year later, on Jan. 28, 2008.
Johnson, the pilot in charge and a unit commander from 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, was commended for his role in that battle as he worked with Iraqi army troops, U.S. special operation forces and U.S. Air Force joint terminal attack controllers to determine the location of friendly and enemy forces while protecting the site of the crash that took the lives of his friends, Capt. Mark Resh and Chief Warrant Officer Cornell Chao.
"The odds were against us," Division Commander Army Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr. said, noting the enemy had around 600 soldiers in well-fortified, dug-in positions.
There was a fierce ground battle under way, and the Iraqi and U.S. soldiers on the ground needed air support. Johnson and his crew were that support.
In eight minutes, Johnson led his team from Forward Operating Base Kalsu to the battlefield.
"Those were the longest eight minutes of my life," he said. "There was sadness because I just lost some of my friends. I was worried about my friends who were still there. I was scared."
But he didn't show it.
Johnson, originally from Nampa, Idaho, orchestrated more than an hour of organized attacks before running completely out of ammunition. His team flew back to FOB Kalsu, re-armed and went back out into the fight.
"He had nerves of steel," Fil said of Johnson after watching the performance on screen at Johnson's award ceremony. "He was calm, reasonable and making sound decisions."
But he didn't feel calm.
"I thought my voice was shaking, and I was thinking about a million things at once," Johnson said. "But like the movie 'Black Hawk Down,' when the bullets are flying, you just do your job. I tried to stay level headed and cool under the pressure."
The enemy had dug trenches that were 12 to 15 feet deep in a zigzag pattern to prevent air support from firing in a straight line all the way through. Fil said the insurgents were well-equipped and organized with supplies and medical stations, but the enemy was virtually destroyed. "There was some good shooting that day," Fil said.
That opened up the road to a successful deployment for 1st Cavalry Division, the general said. "I can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been for us if we had lost," he said.
On a smaller scale, it made a huge difference for the people in the city. "The governor met me, and was sobbing. Not out of sadness, not out of anger, but out of thankfulness," he said. "He was so grateful that we took away that burden."
That wouldn't have been possible without the skills and professionalism of Johnson and his team, Fil said. "I have never been associated with anyone more deserving of the Distinguished Flying Cross than Chief Warrant Officer 3 Johnson," he said.
(Army Sgt. Nicole Kojetin is assigned to 1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs.)