by Staff Sgt. Danielle Johnston
442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Col. James Mackey and Lt. Col. Anthony Roe met four soldiers for whom the A-10 saved their lives during a mission in Afghanistan in 2008. The soldiers, part of the Kentucky National Guard, traveled to Missouri to thank the pilots who flew the mission that day. The pilots are assigned to the 442nd Fighter Wing, an A-10 Thunderbolt II Air Force Reserve unit at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lauren Padden) Hi-res
Note: Pictured is A-10C 79-0123 from the 303rd Fighter Squadron. Crew inscriptions: PILOT: CAPT LANCE ORR, CREW CHIEF: TSGT CHRIS BARTON, ASST. CREW CHIEF: SSGT STEVE SWARTSTROM.
11/29/2012 - WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- In November, five service members reunited. They were never stationed together, nor were they even in the same branch of service. But the event that united them was one that will never be forgotten.
It was 2008. Three hundred reservists from the 442nd Fighter Wing here were deployed to Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan. The A-10 Thunderbolt II unit had been called up to support Operation Enduring Freedom, something it had already done a few times post-9/11.
Col. James Mackey, the wing's vice commander, and Lt. Col. Anthony Roe, both A-10 pilots, were scheduled to provide close-air support to protect an Army convoy that day for a routine mission. However, after takeoff, the pilots were told they would not be needed. They were flying only a few minutes before they got a call over the radio.
"The (joint terminal attack controller) on the radio said, 'I'm not sure, but I think there might be some soldiers taking fire, can you check it out?'" Roe said.
Calling in the big guns
Communication was tough that day due to heavy radio traffic and interceptions - something the pilots and the Army soldiers would remember vividly for years to come. Army Sgt. Mauricio Arias said 17 soldiers in three vehicles had been driving along when they came under attack.
"We were surrounded, and they were firing at us from three sides," he said. "That's when one of our vehicles became disabled, and we knew we couldn't fit everyone into just two vehicles even if we wanted to."
At that point, the soldiers began using their radios to call for help. They were under attack for nearly 45 minutes before they received a response. A JTAC eight miles away finally heard them calling for help through a choppy, intercepted signal. That's when the JTAC called in the big guns.
As the A-10s approached, Roe was able to make radio contact with the soldiers, who gave him their coordinates. The sound of gunfire over the radio filled the A-10 cockpit - making it even more evident to the pilots that they move quickly and be incredibly accurate as they would be firing the A-10's 30-milimeter Gatling gun within 150 feet of the soldiers.
Roe recalls the difficulty of the mission.
"The soliders had set off a smoke grenade to show us their location, but the smoke was extremely close to friendly forces, so we had to be extremely careful," he said. "Normally we try not to get that close to friendly forces, especially without a JTAC to give us exact coordinates, but it quickly became an emergency close-air support mission."
The urgency was one that was felt both on and off the ground. "If the A-10s had arrived two or three-minutes - at most seven minutes later- we'd die," Arias recalls. "At that time, we were fighting and fighting, and we were running out of ammo."
A few days after the firefight, Arias met Roe. Though physically and mentally still in recovery, he offered all he could at the time - a sincere thank-you to the Reserve A-10 pilot who saved his life. In all, there were 17 soldiers on the ground that day. Some suffered minor injuries as a result of the firefight - but all made it out alive.
A daily battle
In 2011, Arias moved to Central Missouri and joined the Missouri National Guard. While exploring Whiteman AFB one day, he saw a plane that brought back a whirlwind of memories and emotions - the A-10. While he admits he doesn't know much about Air Force airplanes, he said he recognized the gun that saved his life.
"I had been dealing with that event from Afghanistan for three years at that point," Arias said. "When I saw that airplane, I didn't know if it was from the same unit who saved us in 2008, but it took me an entire year to build the courage to find out."
In August 2012, Arias walked past the A-10 static display through the front doors of the 303rd Fighter Squadron, part of the 442nd Fighter Wing here. Arias found out Mackey had already moved to a new assignment, and Roe was out of town.
Arias returned home that day and called his comrades back in Kentucky. Each of them encouraged him to return to the squadron and thank them - on behalf of the battalion. Arias returned a few weeks later. Mackey had heard the story and had flown from Hawaii to Missouri to meet Arias.
"This was a monumental mission in our lives also," Mackey said, "so when I heard Sergeant Arias wanted to meet us, I wasn't going to miss it."
Neither was a dozen A-10 maintainers who were on the 2008 deployment. Many of them had heard about the impromptu mission that day, and wanted to meet one of the soldiers from the battalion they had heard about.
Roe and Mackey showed Arias an up-close view of the A-10 - something that brought tears to Arias - who then spoke to a room full of Reserve maintainers. Most of his audience were reservists who were in Afghanistan and helped launch the jets for the mission that saved his life.
"I think about that day a lot," Arias told them. "Usually I think about how thankful I am for those two pilots. But today, I see it's not just about the pilots. Without all of you fixing and launching the Warthogs, I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't be about to get married and able to see my daughter graduate. I would be dead, so thank you to each and every one of you for keeping me alive."
Healing the wounds
After his fellow soldiers heard about the healing Arias received by meeting the pilots, the maintainers and the Warthog, a few knew they needed the same.
So, in November three of the soldiers made the eight-hour drive from Kentucky to Missouri. Some of the soldiers have moved on to civilian life, they said, but many of them never fully healed from the events that occurred that day.
"I've dealt with anger for many years since that deployment," said Derek Stephens, one of the soldiers on the mission that day. "I've been angry, and I've grieved, but now I can finally be grateful."
The soldiers presented Roe and Mackey with a plaque and a flag flown in Afghanistan - something the pilots will hold onto closely.
Note: This shell with the inscription FIRED IN ANGER OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM EMERGENCY CAS JUNE 08 is hold atop page 9 of the newest A-10 book "A-10 Thunderbolt II: 21st Century Warthog" by Neil Dunridge, Reid Air Publications, 2012.
Source (including 4 photos)