Congress Recognizes Soldier’s Mettle

by Beth Ipsen, staff writer, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 15, 2003

 Alaska has a habit of forging heroes out of men and women.

Army 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.

But 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.

“We 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 them.”

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.

While 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.

“What Capt. (Dawn) Groh and CW2 (James) Neal did that day was phenomenal,” Greenleaf said.

It 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 snowmachiner.

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.

After 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.

After 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 was easy.

“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.

The 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.

In 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 girl’s life.

“If I 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.”

Two years ago Greenleaf quartered up a moose to rescue an elderly man who was trapped underneath the animal after shooting it.

“His wife was chewing his butt, saying ‘Every year you work something out where somebody else cuts up your moose for you,’” Greenleaf remembers.

The 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.

“We got out there and they had so little of the sandbar left when we landed, the tail wheel was in the water,” Greenleaf said.

When 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.”

“I 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.”

There 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.

The 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.

“You can ask any medic; it’s the pediatric cases that are the toughest,” Greenleaf said.

After 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 active-duty troops.

He’ll 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.

The 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.

“I 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.”