By Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs
/ Published February 08, 2015
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
The air erupted with the percussive sound of machine-gun fire. Master Sgt. Roger Sparks jumped out of an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter and began the 40-foot hoist down to the bleeding men clinging to a tree for cover.
It was Nov. 14, 2010, a particularly intense day during Operation Bulldog Bite, in the Waterpur Valley of Afghanistan. Sparks and others were tasked with providing life-saving support to Soldiers already on the ground, often flying out two or three times per day to evacuate those injured in the fierce fighting.
Sparks wrapped his arms and legs around his partner, Capt. Koaalii "Koa" Bailey, a combat rescue officer with Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron, in an attempt to shield him from the firestorm of bullets around them.
"Five seconds into the hoist, I knew we were not going to live through this," said Sparks, a former Force Reconnaissance Marine and now a pararescueman (PJ) assigned the 212th RQS.
As soon as his feet hit the ground, they left it again as a rocket-propelled grenade detonated 20 feet away - knocking him down and Bailey on top of him.
"I've seen RPGs detonate at three times that distance and kill people with shrapnel," Sparks said, clearly still shocked by his luck.
"I thought: we only had seconds to live; what do I do next?'" Sparks said. "And it went on like that for two and a half hours."
Before Bailey and Sparks could untangle themselves, the Pave Hawk opened up, spewing lead into the oncoming insurgents.
"There were .50-caliber casings raining from the sky, hitting me in the face." Sparks said. "It was so comforting to know people were dying - people who were trying to kill us."
Because of the high altitude at which they were operating, the air was thin; to carry the weight of the men, the crew had removed the ballistic flooring from the helicopters. While they were hovering above the wounded Soldiers and PJs, the aircraft was taking heavy enemy fire. Bullets ripped through the Pave Hawk's floorboards and shattered the windshield.
However, the crew kept the hover. They knew just as well as the PJs that there were Soldiers dying down there and if they didn't do anything, those men weren't going to make it.
"Get out of here," Bailey radioed the helicopter crew, knowing they couldn't maintain their hover for long. After verifying Bailey and Sparks were still alive, the helicopter assumed an orbit around the battlefield providing cover fire for those on the ground.
"They held that orbit until they ran out of fuel and ammo and had to leave us," Sparks said. "They knew they were leaving us to die."
"God bless you guys ... sorry," was the pilot’s garbled goodbye as he rolled the helicopter off the side of the mountain to return to the forward operating base to refuel and rearm.
"We were stranded," Sparks said, but there was no time to reflect on that.
Sparks and his teammate sprinted and crawled their way across a 100-foot gap of honeycombed earth between them and the men they were trying to save.
"I got 10 feet from the guys by the tree and I heard a fwwwwp!, saw a red flash and an RPG detonated on a tree that was just a few feet in front of me," Sparks said. "It was absolutely overwhelming, and I'd been in firefights before."
They held their position by the ruined tree and found themselves in the middle of crossfire with bullets coming from multiple directions chewing down what little cover they had. That's when Bailey called in the air strikes.
"We didn't believe we were going to live through any of it," Sparks said. "But in that situation, you call in whatever you have available."
Apaches came in alternating runs, firing four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles on nearby insurgents in a tag-team of lethal force.
"When the Apaches ran out of ammo, an F-18 came in with a 2,000-pound bomb," Sparks said. "Give us your last four, last name and authorize it right now," sounded the pilot's voice over the radio.
Bailey gave the authorization, and the pilot dropped the bomb.
It was "danger close" - the situation dictated that the bomb be dropped on an enemy position dangerously close to the friendly forces.
"We had no reason to believe we would live through any of those air strikes, let alone the 2,000-pounder," Sparks said. But they did, and were rewarded with a brief, but valuable, break from the constant crossfire that surrounded them.
"If you're wounded, come to me!" the PJ shouted over the surrounding chaos.
Men began crawling from all directions, dragging friends - and limbs - alike.
"You don't want to have to run back and forth to the wounded," Sparks said. "You need them all in relatively the same place so you can treat them quickly."
The first Soldier he approached wasn't wearing his body armor - it had been blown off. His legs were turned around backward, and he was hyperventilating.
"That's what people look like when they're dying. It's not a beautiful thing," Sparks said.
But with injured men all around, there was no time to grieve; he could still help. One man was lying on his back quietly pleading, "Go help my friends! Help my friends!" Another lay on his stomach repeating the Lord's Prayer.
Sparks ran over to the man who was on his back pleading for his friends, and heard his words turn to gibberish."So I reached down and put my hands underneath him to pick him up," Sparks said. But realized the man had been shot before Sparks even arrived and instead of screaming for help himself, used his last breaths to plead on behalf of his fellow Soldiers. Sparks ran back to a Soldier he had just been talking to, and asked for help moving the body. The man was face-down in the dirt and wasn't responding.
In a rage, Sparks said he grabbed him, kneed him in the side, and yelled for him to help. When the man still didn't respond, Sparks rolled him over to find he had been killed by debris from an RPG which had struck while Sparks was trying to help the man on his back.
"That's how surreal it was," Sparks said. "An RPG hit that close to me and I didn't even realize it."
Sparks said he looked up and saw a man hanging upside down in a tree above him.
"I grabbed him by the arms and pulled him down on top of me so I could treat his wounds." Sparks said.
The man in the tree was Karl Beilby, a law enforcement professional who was embedded into the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) as a civilian contractor.
Karl said he remembers asking Sparks for morphine, and was given a stick to be held in his mouth.
"What's next, you going to take me out for ice cream?" Beilby asked, amused by receiving a narcotic lollipop, despite the gravity of their situation.
Beilby was the most seriously injured individual to survive the fight. The helicopters finally returned, having been delayed by fuel complications and the battle damage received earlier. They loaded the most critically injured first, as many had only hours to live or less without prompt medical attention.
"Then we were left with the dead," Sparks said.
After the helicopters made the five-minute flight to the FOB (forward operating base), Sparks said they unloaded the injured and came back, they began hoisting the dead onto the aircraft two at a time.
When it was all said and done, there were five PJs, including Sparks, four dead bodies, and an Afghan army member who was missing his lower leg crammed into a space the size of a minivan, Sparks said.
Back at the FOB, they unloaded the bodies from the aircraft. Sparks and several others in that engagement received the Silver Star for valor for saving lives that day with disregard for their own personal safety.
Beilby flew up from California to attend and speak at the ceremony. During the operation, 11 Americans died and 49 were seriously wounded. Reflecting on the situation, Sparks said it was important to keep focused during the dangerous chaos.
"You're going to have self-preserving thoughts, but you can't let them take over what you're trying to do. You're trying to salvage human lives,” he said. "When you go beyond yourself, that's when magical things can happen."