Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson
Task Force Red Bulls
LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan (6/14/11) - There is an old Soldier’s expression: Don’t volunteer for anything.
The theory behind the expression is that a Soldier may not like the duty or detail for which they volunteered.
But even after delivering bags of supplies under heavy enemy-fire to infantry troops engaged in a fierce battle in the mountains of Nuristan Province, Army Spc. Tyler Parker-Bellinger, a truck driver with Company E, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Ironman, a part of the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls, said he would volunteer to do it all again.
“We were up at the flightline helping load the bags,” said Parker-Bellinger, who is deployed to Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan. “A bird landed and said they needed a couple guys to help unload it. I figured, being a truck driver, I don’t get to ride on a helicopter too much, so I said, ‘All right.’”
The bags, known as speed balls, are black bags filled with water, food and ammunition sent to troops in heavy contact as part of a quick re-supply mission.
On the afternoon of May 25, Soldiers from the Reconnaissance Platoon, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Bn., 133rd Inf. Regt., were experiencing heavy contact near Do Ab Village, Nuristan Province.
Knowing troops were in contact and pinned down, the entire distribution platoon, along with every available officer and enlisted Soldier, worked on the flightline putting the bags together, Parker-Bellinger said. The hastily-assembled team packaged about 25 bags before helicopters from Company A, 1st Battalion, 169th Combat Aviation Brigade, arrived to deliver the supplies to the troops in contact.
Army Sgt. Jared Henkle, a truck driver, was one of the Soldiers from Co. E’s distribution platoon loading bags when the helicopters arrived.
“Spc. Parker-Bellinger and another Soldier were going to go first, but the commander pulled the other Soldier off and put me on it, because she needed a noncommissioned officer ... big enough to throw the bags off the bird,” Henkle said. Both he and Parker-Bellinger stand over 6 feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds.
The pair said the bags weighed several hundred pounds. The bags of water contained 14 cases each and ammunition speedballs contained in excess of 1,000 rounds of 5.65, .320 and 7.62 mm rounds.
Henkle said the crew chief kept the experience calm with humor.
“They were real laid back about it when we took off,” Henkle said. “The gunner on my side asked what we did in the Army, and we told them we were truck drivers.”
“He said, ‘Oh this will kind of be the same thing. You deliver supplies, we deliver supplies, kind of the same deal.’”
Henkle said he and Parker-Bellinger started hearing gunfire as the helicopter was about 20 yards from landing.
“Just hearing that much fire and knowing you’re about to be landing in the middle of it … that’s when it all kind of hit me,” Henkle said. “We knew it was hot up there, but we didn’t know it would be right by the landing zone like that.
“Once we got to the designated landing zone, immediately there was small arms fire, medium arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade fire,” Parker-Bellinger said.
At that point, the two said only one thing was on their minds – get the supplies out as quickly as possible.
Once the doors opened, I couldn’t even tell you that I heard much of anything, we were just throwing bags as fast as we could,” said Henkle.
“We got out nine of the 10 bags before our bird took off,” Parker-Bellinger. “The other bird didn’t even unload anything because they were taking so much fire.”
Both helicopters returned safely to FOB Mehtar Lam, but the second helicopter sustained small-arms damage to the engine and rear fuselage.
Henkle said the gunners could not return fire due to the steep elevation of the valley around them, which prevented them from getting positive identification the insurgent’s location.
Instead, several of the crew chiefs left their guns and helped unload the supplies. Parker-Bellinger and Henkle threw the bags from inside the aircraft, while the crew chiefs exited the aircraft to assist them.
The crew reported seeing numerous RPGs fired at the aircraft, and rounds landing within feet of the aircraft and personnel. Henkle said the gunner heard rounds hitting the ground right behind him, and when he returned to the base he was visibly shaking. During the unloading of the aircraft, an RPG also landed within 50 yards of the aircraft.
“We heard sort of a muffled explosion and saw the black smoke,” Henkle said.
Henkle and Parker-Bellinger said they were not on the ground more than a minute, yet it was one of the most intense moments of their lives. The two, who have completed about 120 convoy missions through northeastern Afghanistan, had been in convoys which took fire, but both said they had never experienced an attack of that magnitude.
“We were talking about it later,” Henkle said. “And with all the adrenaline, those bags were a lot lighter when we were throwing them off the birds than when we were loading them up!”
Due to the damage to the aircraft, as well as an imminent storm, the crews did not return for a second resupply.
Army Capt. Jodi Marti, Henkle and Parker-Bellinger’s company commander, said she was proud of her Soldiers’ performance.
“When they got back and landed, the air mission commander raved about how well they did and said he’d love to take them back if they could come back for a return trip, which didn’t end up happening,” she said.
“I’m very proud of them. They jumped right up and even though they might not have known exactly what they were getting into, they went anyway, and when they got to the task at hand, they never hesitated, and did what they went up there to do. Not too bad for a couple of truck drivers from Iowa!”