SOLDIER STORIES: This one not soon forgotten.
Captain Andrew Wagner, a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot with Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, California National Guard, goes through his pre-flight checks before conducting a maintenance mission at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan. The 1st Bn., 168th Av. Regt., is responsible for providing medical evacuations throughout the Regional Command (West) area of operations.
(Photos and article by Cpl. Clay Beyersdorfer, 8 DEC 2013.)
SHINDAND AIRBASE, Afghanistan – Eight soldiers make their way into a dimly-lit tent on a brisk December morning at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan. This isn’t the first time the eight soldiers of Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, California National Guard, part of Task Force Nightmare, gathered together, nor will it be the last time they tell the story of the day they met Andy Miller.
Each has their own perspective and take on that day; each with a different role, a different task – all of which played an integral part in what became a life-saving mission on top of a mountain in western Afghanistan. That eventful day, Sept. 7, 2013, is where the Andy Miller story begins.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Andy Miller, an instructor pilot at the Afghan National Army aviation training center at Shindand AB, was conducting his usual pre-flight checks with his student. According to Maj. David Lovett, the commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, and one of the eight story tellers who had never met Andy Miller before that fateful day, this was a routine Miller had been doing for nearly a year – he was just weeks away from going home.
On this particular day, Miller and his Afghan copilot were to practice landing helicopters on top of small points of mountain ranges, or “pinnacles.” The two aviators set off towards a pinnacle that had been used many times before during Miller’s time in Afghanistan.
Back to the present day, where the eight soldiers telling this story come to a halting point, as the story reaches its own pinnacle. They all turn to Lovett, whose unit is responsible for the medical evacuation of personnel in the Regional Command (West) area of operations.
On Sept. 7, Lovett was just 24 hours removed from completing a training exercise on Sept. 6, working on medical evacuations. Irony, sheer coincidence, or some form of twisted fate had Lovett and his Soldiers putting that training to use less than 24 hours after the exercise was over. Lovett picks up the story, recalling how Miller and his Afghan co-pilot neared the pinnacle, which is where the mission took a turn for the worst.
“What happened next, was something out of a movie, something you just couldn’t believe,” Lovett said.
As the helicopter touched down, it set off a pressure-plate improvised explosive device. The blast destroyed the helicopter, leaving a blazing, smoking frame. Back on base, Lovett received a call of a downed aircraft requiring immediate assistance.
“I got the call and it was just go-time,” Lovett said. “We scrambled together, got in contact with a quick reaction force team and we moved out immediately.”
According to Lovett, Miller had removed himself and his co-pilot from the burning aircraft, even though he had a severely fractured leg. The pain was not enough to keep Miller from applying pressure and three tourniquets to his Afghan co-pilot who was also severely injured in the crash, as well as a tourniquet to himself.
Lovett added that Miller doesn’t remember doing any of this, “Probably because of the pain he was in. He was running on pure adrenaline,” he said.
It was an “all hands on deck” situation, as crews from the 1st Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, Missouri National Guard, who were in the area conducting their own maintenance mission, flew in to provide aerial security, and soldiers from 1st Battalion, 214th Field Artillery Regiment, Georgia National Guard, provided ground security.
Miller radioed to whomever he could reach and as the medevac crew arrived, 1st Lt. Thomas Easter, a physician assistant with 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, was one of the first on ground to provide medical attention. As one of the eight soldiers who sat in the room telling the story of Andy Miller, Easter had an up close and personal view of a man he had never met, but saw him like nobody had before. As the helicopter hovered over the crash site, Easter was lowered down to Miller and his copilot, both unable to move due to enormous pain.
“When I first got down there I saw the burning aircraft, I knew it wasn’t going to be good,” Easter said. “Thankfully, when I came upon them they were responsive and talking to me.”
At that point, instinct just took over for Easter. “I work as a PA in the emergency room back on the civilian side,” he said. “As a medic, you just have so many tasks, and from all the training and experience I have had, it just becomes mechanical.”
Easter, along with a crew, successfully littered the two individuals up, in what Lovett said took only an hour. “We weren’t thinking about anything else, or enemy threat,” Lovett said. “Thanks to the quick reaction force team we had both up in the air and on the ground, we were able to extract Andy and the Afghan pilot quickly.”
He smiles when thinking about how less than 24 hours before the incident, his soldiers were practicing the same exercise. “It was just some weird form of irony that literally the day after we trained, here we are doing this,” Lovett said. “It’s just crazy how things happen.”
Easter, along with the other seven soldiers in the room, echoed that statement. “It was just perfect timing that had happened,” Easter said. “It was fresh in everyone’s minds, everyone knew what they had to do.”
Fast-forward to present day, and the story still is as fresh as ever.
“It didn’t really hit me until I saw the first guy (the Afghan co-pilot) get littered up into the bird,” Easter said. “I turned back to Andy and saw him crying, that is how I knew ‘hey this is real – what we are doing, saving his life; this whole thing is real.’”
Andy Miller was being treated at the Eisenhower Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., less than a week later. Months later, Miller wrote an email to TF Nightmare’s leadership, which falls under TF Demon of Regional Command (South); Miller took the time to thank people he had never even met for saving his life.
“A ‘thank you’ surely does not sum up how thankful I truly am. Your soldiers, NCOs and officers truly saved my life that day,” he wrote. “And even though I don’t know any of the names of those involved, I am no less thankful to the professionals who rescued me that day.” After enduring 12 surgeries, Miller is now recovering with his wife and kids back home.
As the eight soldiers who gathered to tell the story of Andy Miller finished, they left the room one by one, reflecting on that very day. The last one to leave was Lovett, who credits his unit’s willingness to constantly train and improve as the reason for success that day.
“We are always looking to challenge ourselves and improve on things,” he said. “Our unit looks to set the standard and be ahead of the curve, and because of that, we were and continue to be successful here in Afghanistan.”