by Beth Ipsen, staff writer,
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 15, 2003
Alaska has a habit of forging heroes out
of men and women.
Staff Sgt. Ken Greenleaf is one man who has been tested numerous times while
flying missions as a medic at Fort Wainwright’s 68th
Medical Company Air Ambulance.
it wasn’t until the U.S. Congress awarded him the Soldier’s Medal, the
highest peacetime award given to a member of the armed forces, that he was
officially dubbed a hero.
reserve the Soldier’s Medal for real heroes,” Maj. Gen. John Brown, U.S.
Army Alaska commander, said before presenting Greenleaf with the medal in
front of about 3,000 Fort Wainwright soldiers September 2. “When one of our
brothers or sisters demonstrates this kind of courage in the face of severe
danger, risking life and limb, their own lives, it’s very fitting we honor
Greenleaf was given the medal for braving daunting weather and terrain to
rescue an injured snowmachiner on a mountain ridge near the Gulkana Glacier
December 7, 2002.
Greenleaf is thankful for the medal, he believes it’s the pilots who flew
the aircraft through whiteout conditions and landed them safely on a
mountain that day who deserve the award.
Capt. (Dawn) Groh and CW2 (James) Neal did that day was phenomenal,”
was a mission where anything could have easily gone wrong and the trip could
have turned deadly, not only for the snowmachiner, but also for the crew of
four in the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.
“Granted, we do a lot of missions that are extremely challenging from the
pilot’s aspect, because in Alaska getting there is half the battle—it’s
three-quarters the battle,” he said. “That was not your average mission.”
Pilots had to deal with snow, low fuel and temperatures of 30 degrees below
zero, while trying to find a landing zone on a mountainside near the injured
Friends of the injured man formed a triangle with the sleds to outline a
place to land. When Greenleaf and the crew chief, Staff Sgt. Brad Posey,
jumped out of the aircraft to talk to the snowmachiners, they landed in snow
up to their waists.
they were told the injured man was on a ridge farther up the mountain,
Greenleaf and Posey jumped on the back of two sleds.
Before long both snowmachines flipped. Greenleaf got on another sled and
once again tried to make his way up the slope. He went about 100 feet on the
back of the sled when it flipped, leaving Greenleaf to forge the treacherous
slope on foot alone.
a two-hour struggle through the snow, Greenleaf reached the injured man. The
man was suffering from a back injury and was hypothermic. His sled was in
little pieces scattered down the side of the mountain.
Greenleaf estimated the man had been there for five to six hours. Once
Greenleaf finished lowering the injured man down, the trip back to Fairbanks
“There are only certain things you can do to treat a back injury,” he said.
However, the journey to get to the man made the mission the most physically
demanding one Greenleaf has faced in his six years with the 68th.
unit is usually busiest around hunting season and even has a helicopter and
crew posted at the yearly Tesoro Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic.
Because Alaska is so vast and holds a variety of perils, Greenleaf and the
other six medics who belong to the 68th
are about the highest skilled found in the Army, he said, both in their
respective emergency medical field and survival skills.
his estimated 40 missions in Alaska, Greenleaf has dangled hundreds of feet
below the helicopter at the end of the hoist, retrieved stranded hunters and
hikers, and witnessed the birth of a premature baby at a pump station August
8, then helped perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation to save the infant
had a dollar for every German I’ve picked up north of the Yukon River. . . .
They’re great people, and they’re a lot of fun when you get them back here
and listen to their stories, but they were still lost,” he said.
Greenleaf has also had some bizarre cases. “We’re glad he’s leaving,” joked
Sgt. Michael Tredway, another medic at the 68th.
“He gets all the cool missions.”
years ago Greenleaf quartered up a moose to rescue an elderly man who was
trapped underneath the animal after shooting it.
wife was chewing his butt, saying ‘Every year you work something out where
somebody else cuts up your moose for you,’” Greenleaf remembers.
job is not without its perils for the medics. Greenleaf injured his leg
running on a gravel bar while the helicopter crew was rescuing two men and a
dog stranded by the rising Beaver Creek September 2.
got out there and they had so little of the sandbar left when we landed, the
tail wheel was in the water,” Greenleaf said.
one of the rescued men thanked him for rescuing his life, “He was a loss for
words,” Greenleaf said. “Tears were welling up in his eyes.”
think when people come here, they want a bigger piece of a great adventure.
Then post-adventure, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’” he said.
“It’s not my place to question them; it’s just my place to bring them home.”
were some missions Greenleaf didn’t enjoy. He was the medic on a helicopter
that flew two children injured in a car crash near Nenana July 2, 2002.
children’s father was inebriated when he drove a car almost head-first into
a truck, killing himself and one of his three children.
Greenleaf thought a second son was going to die. The boy had a closed-head
injury and was having seizures. Fortunately, the boy, his mother and his
sister survived the crash.
can ask any medic; it’s the pediatric cases that are the toughest,”
six years flying Alaska’s skies in search of wayward souls and saving lives,
Greenleaf and his family will leave October 7 for Liverpool, New York, where
he’ll begin a three-year tour as a liaison between Army reserve and
miss Alaska and the 68th, but is
reassured he’s leaving his job in the capable hands of six medics he’s
personally had a hand in training.
thirteen-year Army veteran also plans on returning to Alaska, hopefully as
the first sergeant of the 68th with
the intention of eventually retiring in state.
truly believe Alaska is not a place to live, it’s a way to live,” Greenleaf
said. “It’s a mentality that I’ll have to put aside for three years.”