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Airman helps rescue 3 injured warriors during battle in Afghanistan

Capt. Mary Jennings stands with Tech. Sgt. Aaron Butler, a pararescueman from the 23rd Wing, Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Sergeant Butler treated Captain Jennings for shrapnel wounds in Afghanistan during a July 29, 2009 rescue mission. Captain Jennings is a co-pilot with the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif. (Courtesy photo)

Capt. Mary Jennings stands with Tech. Sgt. Aaron Butler, a pararescueman from the 23rd Wing, Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Sergeant Butler treated Captain Jennings for shrapnel wounds in Afghanistan during a July 29, 2009 rescue mission. Captain Jennings is a co-pilot with the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif. (Courtesy photo)

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. (AFNS) -- An Air National Guard member from the 129th Rescue Squadron here recently returned home from her deployment to Afghanistan after being wounded by enemy forces while rescuing three injured American Soldiers July 29.

Capt. Mary Jennings, an HH-60G Pave Hawk co-pilot, launched her rescue helicopter, call sign Pedro 15, from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, en route to a convoy that had fallen under attack after a vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.

"We couldn't see any enemy fire as we arrived on scene," said Maj. George Dona, Pedro 15 pilot, 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. The helicopter took immediate fire from the enemy upon the first landing, taking off right away, in enough time to drop off two pararescuemen in the zone, Major Dona said.

"One shot actually came directly into the cockpit and pretty much destroyed the entire co-pilot windshield," Major Dona said. "Captain Jennings took shrapnel and there was blood instantly all over her side."

The pararescue team lead member from the 71st Rescue Squadron assigned to the 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., stayed on the aircraft after the first landing to ensure Captain Jennings was all right while the rest of his pararescue team deplaned to collect the patients. The HH-60G flew about a mile south to escape enemy fire and to 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 the aircrew faced, the crew including Senior Master Sgt. Steven Burt, a 129th RQS flight engineer, and Tech. Sgt. Tiejie Jones, a 129th RQS aerial gunner, returned to the scene after getting a call from the pararescuemen saying they were ready to haul out the three patients, Major Dona said.

"Then again, as soon as we landed we took immediate fire. We landed next to the patients and the (pararescuemen) 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 pararescuemen load the patients onto the helicopter.

"There were people yelling, lights flashing, and people screaming through the radios, all while dodging bullets," Captain Jennings said. "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," Captain Jennings said. "We needed to land. It was a decision to either crash three miles away or land two miles away."

The helicopter crew 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. Another HH-60G landed next to their crippled helicopter and the crew loaded all patients and as many crewmembers as possible before departing, Major Dona said.

"Army OH-58D Kiowa helicopters came to retrieve the rest of the crew," Captain Jennings said. "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."

Sergeant Burt also showed valor during the ordeal. While pararescuemen were loading patients onto the second HH-60G 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 a 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 said she 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."

Captain Jennings was awarded a Purple Heart by Maj. Gen. Dennis Lucas, commander of the California Air National Guard, in a ceremony attended by her family, friends and fellow 129th RQW Airmen Dec. 6 at the Santa Clara Convention Center.

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