ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Of the nearly 1,500 missions the New Mexico National Guard flew in Afghanistan in the past 10 months, no one will forget the one of Jan. 12 — especially not Capt. Kevin Doo, Spc. Mark Edens and Sgt. Robert Hardisty.
Last Jan. 12, Doo and his crew were en route to treat and evacuate what they thought was a wounded Afghan child. But as they approached the remote landing site, radio chatter revealed very different circumstances.
"The controller, in a very heightened voice, let us know that the patient had a UXO in him," Doo said Friday prior to welcome home ceremonies for the unit.
"UXO" is the acronym for unexploded ordnance or, in this case, the live, 14-inch warhead from a rocket-propelled grenade that was embedded in the left thigh and abdomen of 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Winder Perez when they picked him up.
"Because there was a (live) warhead on board, special precautions had to be made," Doo said.
"Not only did we know we had to make a soft landing, we had to fly at whatever air speed caused the least amount of vibration. We had to alert the other crews, the tower, the airfield and the hospital that we didn't want anyone rushing toward the aircraft because if anything happened, everyone would be taken out."
The Black Hawk landed, gently, at a field hospital where Army Staff Sgt. Ben Summerfield, an ordnance expert, and a Navy surgeon, Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, removed the RPG while wearing body armor in a makeshift outdoor operating room surrounded by blast barriers.
Miraculously, Perez survived.
"In the debriefing with the Navy surgeon, he told us that, had we chosen to pull the RPG out, Perez probably would have bled to death," Doo said.
That mission, Doo said, etched in his mind the professionalism displayed by his fellow soldiers throughout the deployment.
"They just have a passion for this work," he said. "They really gave it their all. I love that about my soldiers."
The trio, who crewed one of more than a dozen UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flown by Company C, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, talked about that mission last Friday during a "welcome home" ceremony at the Guard's new $37.5 million Army Aviation Support Facility near the Santa Fe airport.
On Friday, Doo, his flight medic Edens and crew chief Hardisty were awarded Army Commendation Medals for valor as a result of that mission. Doo's fellow pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeff Paulson with the Minnesota National Guard, has also received the medal.
An estimated 900 family members, friends and fellow soldiers were on hand to welcome the 60 Guardsmen back from a yearlong deployment — and to mourn Sgt. Pernell Johnnie Herrera, 33, of Española, a member of Charlie Company who suffered a fatal heart attack on Dec. 31, 2011, while serving in Afghanistan.
Ceremonies included a moment of silence for Herrera, and the release of white and gold balloons in his memory.
Charlie Company's primary mission was flying medical evacuations throughout Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province.
The company's commander, Lt. Col. Chris Holland, said the company flew nearly 1,500 missions involving about 1,800 patients, and logged about 4,000 hours of flight time.
But, Holland said, "The best part of going to war is coming home."
About 400 New Mexico National Guard soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 200th Infantry Division, are deployed for a yearlong peacekeeping mission in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. They are due back in January.
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com