California National Guard
An Air Guardsman from the 129th Rescue Squadron here was awarded a Purple Heart at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Dec 6. Capt. Mary Jennings, HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, received the Badge of Military Merit, also known as the Purple Heart, by Maj. Gen. Dennis Lucas, commander of the California Air National Guard, in a ceremony attended by her family, friends and fellow Airmen from the 129th Rescue Wing.
She recently returned home from her deployment to Afghanistan after being wounded by enemy forces during the rescue of three injured American soldiers. Air Force rescue helicopter PEDRO 15 launched July 29 from Kandahar Airfield in route to the convoy that had fallen under attack once striking an improvised explosive device.
“We couldn’t see any enemy fire as we arrived on scene,” said Maj. George Dona, Capt. Jennings’ Pave Hawk co-pilot on PEDRO 15, also from 129th RQS. “We were in voice contact with the soldiers on the ground and we could hear over their radios that they were under distress.”
The soldiers were taking cover from hidden enemy positions on the western side of the convoy. PEDRO 15 took immediate fire upon the first landing, taking off right away, in enough time to drop off two pararescuemen, or PJs, in the zone, Major Dona said.
“One shot actually came directly into the cockpit and pretty much destroyed the entire co-pilot windshield,” said Major Dona. “Captain Jennings took shrapnel and there was blood instantly all over her side.”
The pararescue team lead from the 71st RQS assigned to the 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., stayed on the aircraft after the first landing to ensure Captain Jennings was alright, while the rest of his pararescue team deplaned to collect the patients. PEDRO 15 flew about a mile south to escape enemy fire and guarantee that both the helicopter and crew were in good enough condition to continue the save, Captain Jennings said.
“The helicopter was determined fully functional,” she said. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to return home without the patients.”
Despite the danger PEDRO 15 faced, the crew, including 129th RQS flight engineer Senior Master Sgt. Steven Burt and 129th RQS aerial gunner Tech Sgt. Tiejie Jones, returned to the scene after getting a call from the PJs saying they were ready to haul out the three patients, Major Dona said.
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“Then again, as soon as we landed we took immediate fire. We landed next to the patients and the PJs were already moving them in,” he said. “We took constant fire, and in about 20 rounds to the backside of the helicopter the systems started to deteriorate slowly.”
Captain Jennings told Major Dona, who was on controls, to hold the helicopter on the ground through the fire as she watched the PJs load the patients on the helicopter.
“There were people yelling, lights flashing, and people screaming through the radios, all while dodging bullets,” said Captain Jennings. “Major Dona had a lot of patience and confidence in his team to stay on the ground through all the chaos. His amazing pilotage skills saved all our lives.”
About 30 seconds after takeoff the back cabin was full of fuel, hydraulics were leaking, and systems were not working correctly. Captain Jennings flipped the fuel selector to cross feed between the two fuel tanks to keep the engine from flaming out. This was a huge factor in keeping the helicopter airborne, Major. Dona said.
“As I enabled the second tank I saw it was ticking down to zero as well,” said Captain Jennings. “We needed to land. It was a decision to either crash three miles away or land two miles away.”
The crew of PEDRO 15 made the right decision. After landing the helicopter about two miles south of the convoy attack the crew shut down and quickly secured a perimeter to protect the patients. Nearby flight PEDRO 16 landed next to their crippled wingmen and loaded all patients and as many crew members as possible before departing, Major Dona said.
“Army OH-58D Kiowa helicopters came to retrieve the rest of the crew,” said Captain Jennings. “Being small single-engine, single-rotor, two-seater helicopters, there was no room for us inside. We had to stand on the skids and hold onto rocket pods.”
As if the heroic pilotage of Captain Jennings and Major Dona weren’t enough, Sergeant Burt also showed extreme valor. While PJs were loading patients onto PEDRO 16 and the crew was being exfiltrated on to the skids of their cover ships, one of the pararescuemen called for help. Sergeant Burt ran through the rain of fire to help, Captain Jennings said.
“He totally put his life on the line,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of my crew’s heroism.”
Looking back at the incident, Captain Jennings is thankful for her crew and their bravery.
“In a country where rocket propelled grenades are used everywhere, it was a amazing that no one had an RPG. Everything was covered in fuel, including ourselves.” she said. “It was nothing short of a miracle that we survived.”