Originally published in Newsweek – November 12, 2012
By Tony Dokoupil and John Ryan
The first bodies came on the first day of the operation. It was a Saturday, hot and quiet, the wind spinning eddies of sand around Forward Operating Base Joyce in eastern Afghanistan. Out of the midmorning silence came the crackle of a hand radio. “Medevac! Medevac! Medevac!” said the dispatcher, and eight camouflaged figures—the helicopter crews of DUSTOFF 73 and DUSTOFF 72—darted out of their tents, a rehearsed riot of belts and straps, buckles and Velcro. Going by the manual, it takes more than an hour to prep a Blackhawk helicopter for flight. But both of these birds were airborne within five minutes, the pilots still blinking sleep from their eyes.
The call came from a unit in Operation Hammer Down, a mission to clear Taliban training camps in the Watapur Valley, just over the border from Pakistan’s most dangerous tribal regions. The same terrain stymied the Soviets in the 1980s, and controlling it was an elusive centerpiece of the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Every summer U.S. forces charged in by the hundreds, but every fall the bad guys were back again, and the cycle repeated. This mission was meant to be the last dance, a crucial partnership with the Afghan National Army before the Obama administration began unwinding the war.
It broke down almost immediately. Before dawn a lumbering Chinook transport helicopter clipped a tree line and crash-landed high in the mountains, stranding a platoon of infantry soldiers. At least two other platoons were ambushed at dawn as they moved into the valley. And by midday the medic calls were stacking up like bids at an auction. The most urgent came from Gambir, a village notched into the mountainside, where 40 soldiers dug in against the onslaught. The first in command was already dead, shot in the neck as he moved to higher ground to organize an evacuation. Now a skinny black private was slowly choking on his own blood, his jaw shot away.
Inside the cockpit of DUSTOFF 73, the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Erik Sabiston, 38, stared out from behind dark shades. Back at base he’s known as a jokester, the guy who carpets a Red Sox fan’s locker with Yankee paraphernalia. But not in the air. Now Sabiston talked maneuvers with co-pilot Kenneth Brodhead, 44, one of the most experienced fliers in the Army; behind them were two relative rookies, 24-year-old Specialist David Capps, the crew’s technician, and next to him the medic herself, Sgt. Julia Bringloe, one of the few women on the front lines. They were flying over a region where more than a hundred Americans have died fighting, a many-named series of valleys known among some veterans by only one: the “Valley of Death.”
There was no way to land in Gambir; the fighting around the gravely wounded soldier was too intense. Trees burned, buildings smoldered. Taliban reinforcements streamed in from a network of caves and the homes of sympathetic locals. So over the next few hours—while American gunships tried to clear Gambir for an emergency landing—the two DUSTOFF helicopters knocked down their rescue lists elsewhere. There was a patient with shrapnel in his thigh, two patients with gunshot wounds, and then two more with the same. Neither helicopter landed; instead, Bringloe and the other medic were hoisted down on hooks, and then hoisted back up along with the stricken. No shots were fired, no enemy engaged. It was almost like a training day.
Then Sabiston swung the helicopter toward Gambir. The village came into view all at once. It looks like a war movie, Sabiston thought to himself, like Apocalypse Now. A hot tide of adrenaline rushed through him. Capps, who flew with an American flag wrapped beneath his body armor, thought of his son, just 5 months old. Bringloe, whose own son was 11, hung IV bags and set up monitors, prepping the cabin for more patients. Then, as the chopper approached, she dipped into a stash of gummy bears, trying to steady her nerves.
Their sister ship made the first attempt at the rescue. The soldier with the missing jaw was positioned near a mud hut built into the cliff, surrounded by tall pine trees. As the helicopter moved in for a hoist, however, the Taliban opened fire. A rocket-propelled grenade arced over the tail and into the rock face. A spray of small-arms fire was more accurate. It caused catastrophic damage to the hydraulic system. As another day in the desert turned toward a cloudy and moonless night, the sister ship peeled off for an emergency landing. And something heavy settled in the minds of Sabiston, Brodhead, Bringloe, and Capps, the crew of DUSTOFF 73: they were the only medevac crew left in the sky.
It was June 25, 2011, and what happened over the next 48 hours has become one of the most decorated missions in aviation history. Newsweek was able to re-create it in full for the first time, drawing on military records, interviews with the participants, and other published reports. And yet what makes the story so special isn’t the details of those days—the shark-toothed terrain, thin air, and thinner margins—but the weirdly pedestrian nature of it all. The Army air ambulance corps is the only fully equipped emergency fleet in the military, and heroism is inscribed in its basic job description. Its helicopters are on the front lines of a parallel war effort, a mission not to take lives but to save them—and, almost unbelievably, it’s a mission that’s working.
If you’re wounded in action in Iraq or Afghanistan, you have a more than 90 percent chance of coming home with a heartbeat. That’s the best survival rate in the history of war: up from 76 percent in Vietnam, 70 percent in World War II, and don’t-even-ask-because-you’re-dead before that. This new calculus is one of the only consistent bright spots to come out of a decade of bloodshed, the result of a system that ferries soldiers from wherever they fall to a field surgeon, usually in less than an hour, and home for even more specialized treatment, often within a week. But it all depends on that first response, the helicopter ride nearly every wounded warrior has in common. “It’s almost sacred,” says Sabiston, the pilot.
None of the DUSTOFF 73 crew took a straight path to the job. Sabiston joined the Navy reserves as a teen in Virginia, shifted to the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, and qualified for flight school after six tries. Capps, a high-school wrestler from Nebraska, enlisted as a teenager with a vague interest in learning a trade and sharp memories of towers burning on a basement television. Brodhead was a tuba player who left the South Florida of Miami Vice for an Army band, qualifying for pilot school a decade later. Since then his flights have saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers, including the first-ever quadruple amputee. He could have retired years ago, he says, but an Army medevac crew once saved his wife and unborn twin sons, flying them from rural California to San Diego for a complicated birth, and he’s the kind who believes he owes a debt.
Then there’s Bringloe, whose journey is perhaps the most roundabout and almost certainly the most interesting. She’s a former student-body president, the daughter of an engineer, and yet she dropped out of college and ended up digging ditches and hauling lumber for a living. By her late 20s she was working as a contractor in Hawaii, where she married and had a son. But she tired of building houses for rich people. She also noticed that when co-workers were hurt—dropped from ladders, separated from fingers—she had an uncanny ability to stay calm and help them. So why not be a medic? To pay for the training, she enlisted. “My family and friends thought I’d completely lost my brain,” she recalls, and in a sense she had. It was 2007 and even the recruiter said, “Ma’am, you do know you’ll be going to war?”
Under the Geneva Conventions, medevac crews are supposed to be immune from fire, but the Geneva Conventions are often ignored. In the six months following Operation Hammer Down, for example, Army medevac helicopters—which rescue not only soldiers but civilians—were shot at 57 times. There’s a collective toll to pay for floating around unarmed in combat, an anecdotally higher rate of emotional problems and frequent casualties. In essence the medevac mission hasn’t changed since it was created, 50 years ago this year. The banner outside the DUSTOFF 73 barracks in Jalalabad says “burning gas to save your ass.” But the patches they wear into battle are inscribed with a darker motto, the final words of Maj. Charles Kelly, the first medevac commander, shot through the heart as he refused orders to fly away from a dangerous rescue site in Vietnam. “I’ll leave,” he said, “when I have your wounded.”
Back at the mud hut in Gambir, the condition of the private with the lost jaw was deteriorating, and his platoon’s first sergeant made desperate calls from the ground. “Just land,” he pleaded. “Get him off this mountain.” DUSTOFF 73 was ready to try, but the fighting was out of control, and, at least for now, they obeyed orders from base to wait for a clearing. The ghost of Charles Kelly notwithstanding, a dead medevac unit is pointless, and the loss of the last unit in the valley would have been tragic. With an electronic ping another mission announced itself in the command center’s computer—“the PTSD machine,” as some call it. It was a comparatively minor call, a case of severe dehydration, but the need to protect the depleted soldier was preventing his unit from joining the fight at the mud hut, so Sabiston accepted the mission. He guided the helicopter a few kilometers away and several thousand feet higher, to where the patient was waiting amid a spiked forest of 100-foot pine trees. It was windy and almost full dark, the hardest time to fly. “The worst possible situation to do a hoist in,” he thought.
Bringloe was behind him thinking the same thing. But she strapped herself onto a yellow hook, leaned out over the tree line, and stepped into air. She was 160 feet up in the evening sky, and the wind spun her like a circus performer all the way down. On the ground she had to lie flat for a minute to recover her bearings. Then she crawled to the soldier, a big guy, she thought, although in truth they’re almost always bigger than her. She secured him on the hoist, climbed on herself, and signaled to Capps to reel them in: 10 feet off the ground, 20 feet off the ground, 30 feet off the ground…
The wind gusted, sending her and the patient swinging, and it didn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to see what would be waiting for her as she swung back past the center line: the spiked club of a dead pine tree. From above, Capps could see Bringloe twist her body, absorbing the collision with her left leg and pushing off, lest she end up snagged like a lure in tall grass. She succeeded, but the tree took a divot of flesh out of her shin and sent a spidery crack through her bone. The nurse who met them on the ground thought Bringloe was the patient. But she simply washed out her own wound and limped back to the waiting helicopter.
“You OK?” Capps asked her.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said.
“You need to quit?” Sabiston added, with a half smirk. He knew she wouldn’t.
It was now dark and from the sky Gambir glowed like a dying campfire. While the average combat medevac mission takes just 39 minutes from tarmac to tarmac, hours had passed and the first sergeant on the ground was sure they were down to minutes before they lost the kid who had lost his jaw. One of the darker realities of America’s 90-plus survival rate is the unfathomable gore, the bullets to the face and missing limbs, the result of an enemy that aims where the body armor isn’t. Every fifth or sixth pickup is so bloody that Bringloe and company have to hose someone out in the helicopter. She braced for that kind of pickup or worse.
“In an honest assessment of myself,” Bringloe later said in a sworn debriefing, “every cell in my body was against going back” to the mud hut. The location “was still out of control with ground forces taking fire in at least three directions,” she continued. Bringloe knew she had to control her fear to perform, but she had another reason: she’s a woman in combat, one of the few and therefore one of the scrutinized. Some people still argue that women aren’t outfitted emotionally for combat, and Bringloe has always tried to prove such naysayers wrong. “I try to conduct myself in the military not as a woman but as a soldier,” she later explained, “because we’re talking about a job, not a gender.”
It was too dark to perform another hoist. So Brodhead and Sabiston talked through maneuvers. “Land on the roof!” urged the first sergeant below. This was not a sane idea even in perfect conditions. The only way to land an eight-ton helicopter on a mud roof is not to land at all but to just kiss the roof line with one wheel, light as a pat on the head. All DUSTOFF pilots practice this on boulders, testing the mechanical limits of the aircraft in the thin mountain air. But the air is never this thin, and the space is never this tight. There were trees growing through the roof itself.
Sabiston tried it from his side, but couldn’t find enough space, so he pulled up after three attempts. “You’re leaving us?” the first sergeant radioed. Brodhead took the controls to try from his side. With more than 5,000 hours of flight time, much of it under fire, Brodhead was in the region as senior flight instructor, a teacher of teachers. If he couldn’t do this, it couldn’t be done.
Down, down, down he descended, the solid high-pitched whine of the rotors blanketing the mountain. Afraid to lose another medevac, Apache and Kiowa gunships created a ring of protective fire. “The aircraft was shaking,” remembers Sabiston, “and it was beautiful, just like the Fourth of July.” Because Blackhawks don’t have rearview mirrors, Capps and Bringloe leaned their heads out the windows, coaching Brodhead into the parking space. “Left two inches. Hold.” “Right one inch. Hold.” Every few seconds the concussion from a missile rippled through the cockpit as the other American helicopters tried to suppress the enemy. “It’s just the Kiowas,” Brodhead yelled to calm everyone down. “It’s OK! It’s just the Kiowas.” Right about then a Taliban rocket-propelled-grenade team appeared on a nearby roof, aimed—and was blown away by a blast of a 30mm American machine gun.
Moments later they were trading weight with the hut. Bringloe later said she felt “a bit like being under water for too long and finally accepting the fact that it’s time to take that first breath of water into your lungs.” She threw open the bay door and stepped into a firefight. The dust stung her nose and burned her eyes. She yelled for the wounded. Three men climbed on board, two of them propping up the third, the young black soldier, his eyes rolled upward as if in prayer.
He was eerily quiet. Most seriously wounded patients scream louder than the engines. In the blue light of the cabin, Bringloe threw a breathing tube into one of the private’s nostrils, opening up a breathing path and ran an IV into his arm. She’s trained to IV any available limb, drilling into bone if needed. She stanched the bleeding with gauze soaked in a clotting agent but even as she worked she thought it pointless. “We’re too late,” she said over the intercom.
The next morning the crew awoke back at Forward Operating Base Joyce in the same clothes they wore the night before, except Bringloe’s camo was spotted purple where blood soaked in. The memory of the rest of the mission is a blurred tape with a few slow-motion sequences that none of the participants will ever forget. Bringloe rappelling down a 20-foot boulder. Sabiston hovering at the crest of a 10,000-foot ridge line, the aircraft wobbling at its mechanical limits. Capps throwing his legs outside the helicopter to catch an empty plastic body bag before it floated into the tail rotors. And the final two rescues: the kind of dramatic ending the unrelenting sameness of war almost never provides.
They both star Bringloe, who dropped onto the roof of the mud hut in Gambir to pick up a dead body. Bullets flecked the landing zone and sizzled past her ears during the hoist back up, a full 15 seconds of exposure that had the boys in a nearby Apache cheering the bravado. The whole time, Sabiston and Brodhead somehow held a perfect hover, knowing that their seats were designed to flip down into operating tables because bullet-ridden pilots are that common. At last they pulled away to safety and Brodhead saw the oddest thing in a field not 200 yards away: a soccer game. In the U.S. kids stop for fire trucks, but here a helicopter flies through a bullet shower and the game plays on.
They had to go back up the mountain for the last hoist. For three days the weather had been bad but flyable. Now it was like someone had kicked a roll of insulation over the sky. Bringloe was dangling 50 feet below the helicopter with a patient when it happened. In a matter of seconds clouds enveloped the aircraft, blinding everyone on board. Looking up, she could only see her cable disappearing into a wet gray nothing. “Hold on,” she told the patient. “They’re going to fly out of it.” Sabiston and Brodhead radioed in about the emergency conditions, a total whiteout, and flew up through the canyon on instruments alone. For several minutes they rose, long enough for Bringloe to be cabled into the hold, and then all at once they popped up above the clouds.
They had rescued 14 soldiers, made three critical resupply runs, recovered two dead bodies, and nearly died every day for three days straight. Now they flew back to Jalalabad, showered, and got online to friends and family. They didn’t talk to each other about the mission, but they all understood it was special even before they got the news that every one of their hoists survived. The skinny black kid was already out of the country, in fact probably on board a big ol’ freedom bird headed for a warm, dry hospital in Germany, where he’d get another reconstructive surgery before one more transfer back to America.
“Someday that kid is gonna be sitting on his porch with his kid or his grandkid in his lap, living his life, not dead,” one of the other DUSTOFF pilots told Sabiston later that night. “That is your reward. Knowing that you helped him get there.” But there would be other awards as well. This past winter the three-day adventure of DUSTOFF 73 was named Air/Sea Rescue of the Year, the top honor of the Army Aviation Association of America. Over the summer Bringloe flew to New York for the USO awards, where she won Woman of the Year, appearing alongside the first female four-star general, Ann Dunwoody, and the first female president of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson. But the biggest prize was yet to come.
At ceremonies at Fort Drum and Fort Rucker last month, Bringloe, Brodhead, and Sabiston were given the highest prize in aviation, the Distinguished Flying Cross. Major Kelly, the original Mr. DUSTOFF, had won his own for a similar mission, “a tricky mountain rescue, landing on a spot between trees [with] one skid off the ground,” according to a report in his hometown newspaper. He was killed a few weeks later, before he even knew he was nominated. These three were luckier. They were honored for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action,” their citations began, and for Bringloe it was especially high praise. She’s just the seventh woman ever to receive the award, and only the fourth for combat experience. One of the others is Amelia Earhart.
These days Brodhead is finally thinking about retirement. Capps has already gone there, taking with him the Air Medal With Valor he won for Operation Hammer Down. Sabiston is teaching down at Fort Rucker in Alabama, enjoying a break in the action, and Bringloe is preparing to redeploy next year. She recently graduated from a course for advanced medics, a new effort in the Army’s push for a perfect war, a fight without dying. As more troops come home from the Middle East, there are naturally fewer casualties this year than in years past. But that doesn’t mean the battle is done. A month after the heroics of DUSTOFF 73, Army intelligence picked up new activity in the training camps, an effort to resupply after Operation Hammer Down.
Tony Dokoupil is a senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. John Ryan, a former staffer at Army Times, is a freelance reporter based out of New York City; he served two tours in Iraq as a platoon leader.