JTACs guide air strikes, turn tide during major battle

  • Published
  • By Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Matson
  • 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Airmen from the Washington Air National Guard directed multiple airstrikes May 25 helping a significantly outnumbered U.S. Army and Afghan National Security Force unit fight through an ambush and free a district center from insurgents.

Joint terminal attack controllers from the 116th Air Support Operations Squadron, in communication with coalition aircraft, directed aerial attacks on enemy positions while U.S. and Afghan soldiers fought to drive insurgents from Do Ab, a tiny village in Nuristan province, Afghanistan.

Approximately 40 U.S. service members, including two JTAC Airmen, and about 20 of their Afghan counterparts went to Do Ab after intelligence reports indicated insurgents had overrun the district center.

The Airmen and Soldiers from the 133rd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Ironman, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, TF Red Bulls, fought through a massive ambush from an enemy force numbering in the hundreds, killing more than 100 insurgent fighters in an intense 72-hour battle.

The service members involved said the most amazing part of the whole conflict, though, was there was not one coalition force casualty. The Airmen from the Washington ANG were the key to the battle, they added.

"If they hadn't been there dropping bombs, I don't know that we would have gotten out of that valley," said Army Sgt. Edward Kane, an infantry team leader. "The enemy was getting closer, and their shots were getting more accurate."

The Airmen spoke modestly of their involvement in the mission.

"We were very lucky," said Tech. Sgt. Tavis Delaney.

Delaney and Senior Airman Michael McCaffrey were the two specially-trained members of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party inserted with the Soldiers that day.

The Army leaders and rank-and-file members the JTAC Airmen support said there was much more than luck at work during the fight.

JTACs are trained to work alongside Soldiers to control precision air strikes on the enemy. In Afghanistan, their work is critical to saving U.S. and Afghan lives, said Maj. Raed Gyekis, the 116th's Air Liaison Officer.

He said the training and preparation a JTAC undergoes is strenuous, combining many of the top specialized schools from both the Army and Air Force.

The geography of the valley made it extremely challenging for coalition forces.

"This is a fairly remote valley, surrounded by high canyon walls," said Lt. Col. Chris Adamson, the 116th ASOS squadron commander. "It had been a while, nearly two years, since any American forces had been there."

"Do Ab is a remote area with a small district center, comparable to a small town courthouse in America," he said. "Not much else is there."

Adamson said his Airmen and the 133rd's Soldiers faced a lot of uncertainty pertaining to the mission.

"We received several reports indicating that the local Afghan police had been overrun by 400 to 500 Taliban fighters, but the information was of questionable value," he said.

"The mission came down quickly," recalled Gyekis. "Headquarters wanted to know what the situation in Do Ab really was. Our Army unit had very little time between notification and mission execution."

"Maj. Gyekis told me to grab Mac and be ready to go for a three-day mission, at the helicopter, in 52 minutes," said Delaney, the lead JTAC.

Delaney and McCaffrey boarded CH-47 Chinook helicopters with the platoon. When the helicopters touched down in the narrow canyon floor next to a rushing river, the Airmen said they were tactically in one of the worst possible spots, one where an ambush could easily happen. The Soldiers and Airmen were in a valley surrounded by steep canyon walls. However, it was the only suitable landing zone in the narrow canyon.

"There was no good cover or concealment on the landing zone," said Army 1st Lt. Justin Foote, the platoon leader for Recon Platoon.

The 116th ASOS JTACs have navigated some of the most difficult terrain in eastern Afghanistan, in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

"This was some of the worst terrain," Delaney said, "and exactly where I would choose to place an ambush if I was the enemy."

Which is exactly what happened.

"As soon as we got off the helicopters, we started taking fire from every direction ... rocket propelled grenades, AK-47, machine guns and mortars," McCaffrey said. "They held all the high ground surrounding the landing zone."

For the Army, there was nothing to do but seek cover and return fire. Nonetheless, cover was sparse, and the enemy was so high above the coalition forces they could use plunging fire to shoot over what little cover the Soldiers had. The JTACs, knew these first minutes were critical for their unit's survival.

"The Army laid down suppressive fire on all the enemy locations, while Delaney and McCaffrey hastily requested more firepower," recalled Master Sgt. Rob Lee, another 116th ASOS JTAC who was working the headquarters' radios.

Sergeant Lee relayed their urgent requests and quickly got Navy and Air Force strike aircraft overhead to support his pinned-down teammates.

Within a short time, while under fire, Delaney began to guide jets to drop the first bombs onto the heavily-armed enemy surrounding his embattled unit. The bombs continued to fall for the next seven hours.

Meanwhile, Apache and Kiowa attack helicopters also joined the fight even as the enemy continued to attack. The Soldiers fended off the enemy attack in the landing zone area for the better part of an hour before moving to a better position.

With Delaney and McCaffrey guiding bombs onto the enemy positions, the small infantry force escaped the open landing zone. They took cover in a nearby series of abandoned Afghan mud huts and rock-walled animal pens.

For six hours, they, along with their Afghan National Army counterparts, fought off the enemy. Meanwhile, the enemy continued to swarm around them in the mountains above. The Soldiers did not know it at the time, but the enemy had heavily fortified fighting positions: trenches dug into solid rocks that were chest-high.

The Soldiers said they continued to fight, but as the enemy drew closer, the air strikes began to take their toll on the overwhelming enemy force that had them surrounded and pinned down.

Despite a deadly hail of bullets kicking up dust at their feet and RPGs exploding nearby, Delaney and McCaffrey continuously ran between the huts to figure out where the greatest threats were coming from and then control airstrikes on the advancing enemy fighters.

The Taliban targeted the JTACs each time they sprinted across open ground.

"Every time Sergeant Delaney lifted his foot, a bullet kicked up dust in the footprint he had just left," McCaffrey said.

Meanwhile, Airmen at FOB Mehtar Lam did their best to support their fellow Airmen in the fight in the valley at Do Ab.

"We loaded a bunch of emergency helicopter resupply 'speedballs' full of more ammo, water and food for the guys," said Master Sgt. Dave Glisson, a 116th ASOS member helping push assistance forward to Delaney and McCaffrey. "But only a few were successful getting dropped off due to the heavy amount of gunfire in the battle. Several aircraft were shot up in the effort."

"It got to the point where the enemy had maneuvered within 200 meters of the team," said Tech. Sgt. Jaime Medina, another 116th ASOS JTAC. "Tavis made the gutsy call to recommend a danger-close mission to the ground commander."

Dropping massive bombs that close to U.S. forces, just outside the bomb's maximum effective range, left no room for error by the pilots, and was a very difficult decision to make.

"It had to be done, however," Delaney said. "We were in direct danger of being overrun."

The bombs shook the entire team.

"We felt it hit, rocks flew by our heads, dust erupted everywhere and all sound seemed to stop for several seconds," McCaffrey said.

The Soldiers and Airmen said the bombs made the difference in the battle.

The efforts of the pilots also were crucial to helping save the lives of the platoon, added Army Staff Sgt. Luke Chatfield, a joint fires observer who worked hand in hand with the JTACs during the battle.

"I give a lot of credit to the pilots, both helicopter and fighters," Chatfield said. "They came in under fire each time we needed them to, and they were getting shot at and still were able to get on target time and time again and didn't hesitate. We had fixed-wing come down the valley lower than any fixed wing I've ever seen before, and they were getting shot at there, too, and they didn't care."

"The 116th ASOS and Washington ANG have had members deployed nearly continuously since Sept. 11, 2001," Gyekis said, "We have members who humbly wear the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and other awards for valor for their service to the nation. What these two did that day is right up there with the very best of those."

After a final burst of enemy resistance, the battle ended, almost as suddenly as it began.

"For the next several days, we secured the district center and conducted patrols through the villages," Delaney said. "We didn't receive any more gun shots."

Adamson said the two Airmen had not only survived a well-laid ambush, but had turned the tables on the enemy. They used their wits and skills to bring air power to bear on an overwhelming enemy force, and in the end, their actions were pivotal to bringing every single one of their brothers-in-arms home, he said.

All of the men of the platoon were pulled out three days afterward, exhausted and humbled by their good fortune.

"I couldn't be prouder of what our Washington guardsmen did to bring those Soldiers home safely to their families," Adamson said.

"What Delaney and McCaffrey did that day was both extraordinary, as well as expected from each of our JTACs," Gyekis said. "We spend years preparing for days like this. They were the right men in the right spot at the right time. We train so that each of our teams can be thrown into a meat grinder like Do Ab and do what those two did. We are fortunate to have a lot of men of their caliber in our unit ... and they were all jumping at the chance to hop on a helicopter and get up there and help Tavis and Mike out during this battle."

The day after the platoon returned to their forward operating base, several of the Army soldiers and leaders individually approached Delaney and McCaffrey's team leader, Gyekis.

"Your two JTACs saved our lives," they told him.

Gyekis recalled how one of them had tears in his eyes when he recounted the story, and how his wife and children had Delaney and McCaffrey to thank for his safe return.

"Those Soldiers words," Delaney said, "are the highest compliment you could ever pay one of our JTACs."