CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan – In the midst of combat, acts of valor and bravery are performed so often they are sometimes overlooked. This was almost the case with the story of the soldiers who rescued Marine Lance Cpl. Winder Perez. This is a story that will finally be told, months after it occurred.
On Jan. 12, 2012, a call was passed over the radios to a medevac (medical evacuation) crew to rescue a 3-year-old Afghan girl who had suffered from a gunshot wound and shrapnel to the back. After dropping off personnel and equipment from their current mission, they headed back out to the location for pick-up.
Upon contacting the ground crew on the directed frequency, the pick-up location had moved. After verifying the medevac request and landing safely to retrieve the patient, the landing zone controller came over the radio with a loud, frantic voice, “the patient has (unintelligible) unexploded ordnance!”
The patient was no longer the girl, but Perez who had a rocket propelled grenade embedded in his leg extending to his lower abdomen. The RPG had not detonated yet meaning the slightest wrong move could set it off.
“That call will be in my mind all my life,” said Sgt. Robert Hardisty, a crew chief with C Company, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, New Mexico National Guard, who was attached to 25th Combat Aviation Brigade. “First you land thinking it’s a little girl and the next thing it is a Marine with an unexploded RPG embedded in his body.”
Spc. Mark Edens, a flight medic with C/1-171, was the first to see the RPG round visible in Perez. At this point the crew had to make a decision. “Because of the level of danger, if the crew left Perez on the ground and decided not to take him, no one would have ever blamed them. We all would have understood,” said Maj. Christopher Holland, C/1-171 commander.
Capt. Kevin Doo, the pilot-in-command for this mission, the pilot of the crew decided they would only take Perez if the entire crew agreed.
“There was no doubt to anyone that we were going to take this Marine and get him the medical attention needed to save his life,” said Doo. “When dealing with this, not knowing that any moment could be your last. Eighteen inches from the patient’s legs was about 360 gallons of aviation fuel.”
The crew transported Perez as quickly as they safely could landing at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh 24 minutes from the time the RPG hit Perez.
“After Lance Cpl. Perez was loaded on the Black Hawk, it was a total of 11.2 minutes of flight time where every minute felt like an hour,” Doo said. “During that time, we were on the radio coordinating with our escorts, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, and medical personnel who were going to treat Perez.”
The crew’s coordination paid off. The coordination included telling the armed escorts of the medevac helicopter to stay a good distance away for their safety, calling the EOD team to handle the disposal of the RPG, and ensuring medical personnel were aware of and prepared for the situation they were about to handle.
Upon hearing the news of the RPG, the medical team set a plan in motion to properly remove the round as they gathered necessary supplies and met the medevac at the landing zone. When Perez arrived at FOB Edinburgh, he was transported to a safe area to extract the round with only the necessary personnel present.
Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, department head, Surgical Company B, 2nd Supply Battalion, noticed the wounds Marine Cpl. Perez received were life threatening. If he had not been transported by the speed of medevac, then he would have died of those wounds.
After removing the round and closing up the wounds, Perez was transported to Bastion Hospital for further care. The same crew who evacuated him from the battlefield were the ones who transported him to the next higher medical facility.
Although the RPG round was now miles away from Perez, other issues arose for him and the crew. His ventilator failed during the flight prohibiting his oxygen flow. At this moment, Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty acted rapidly manually giving oxygen and bringing the Marine back to a stable condition.
“After stabilization, I witnessed Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty work in a calm, cool and professional manner ensuring the safety of this patient who suffered a second near catastrophic event with the loss of the oxygen ventilation machine,” said Gennari. “I distinctly remember thinking that if Dustoff could risk their lives to bring this patient to us, the least I can do is take some risk and get that thing out of his leg.”
Stories of heroism like these happen more than we think. While the fog of war keeps most stories hidden so they will never be told, this one escaped from the mist so it could find a place in our hearts. As for Perez, it was thanks to these heroic acts that allow him to read this story today from the comfortable safety of the United States.
Update, 5 June: Video interview with some of the crew here.