Distinguished Flying Cross
By Tech. Sgt. David Speicher, 175th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 07, 2013
BALTIMORE -- Ninety soldiers lived to fight another day due to the efforts of several A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots of the Maryland Air National Guard.
"I saw tracer fire and I knew I was getting shot at but I went right back into supporting the ground troops. I turned away from the ground fire and got right back into providing fire support," said Lt. Col. Paul C. Zurkowski, 104th Fighter Squadron commander.
It had all started with troops in contact with the enemy in a desert valley with worsening weather conditions. When the A-10s were called into the fight, fuel was soon an issue for them. One Thunderbolt plane would stay on station, while the other went to refuel in an effort to provide combat air support (CAS).
"At that point I provided four passes with 30 mm, concentrating fires on that northern ridgeline. Throughout those passes I was in contact with (Maj. Christopher D. Cisneros) his wingman who was in-flight refueling with an orbiting KC-135 Stratotanker) with updates (on the fight)," said Zurkowski.
"Starting on the fourth pass, Cisneros was eight minutes away from the target area. At this point I am out of ammunition and I am below bingo fuel (a level of fuel where the pilot must return to base). I am not going to make it to the tanker. I inform the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) on the ground that it will be about seven minutes until there is another A-10 on station. So there is a break in coverage for about seven minutes," said Zurkowski.
Seven minutes in a fierce firefight is a long time to the ground troops. "This is an eternity. I tried to get as much information to Cisneros as I handed off the target area to him," said Zurkowski.
Full Tank Plenty of Ammo
"I get a brief hand-off," said Cisneros, an instructor pilot for the 104th Fighter Squadron at Warfield Air National Guard Base.
Cisneros heard the Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) on the radio. "It sounded like he needed help right away. I explained to him about the weather,'" said Cisneros when recalling conversations over the radio in route to the target area. "It sounded like they needed ordnance right away."
Cisneros still needed to navigate around weather and terrain to get back to the target area. 'Ordnance right away' has to be balanced with the safety of the coalition troops in contact with the enemy.
"We want to find the friendlies. I had a difficult time seeing the friendlies because of the weather. There were lightning strikes and these guys really needed my assistance. But, anytime you employ ordnance you are concerned where friendly vs.. enemy positions are," recalled Cisneros. "They were under fire and I needed to employ my 30mm."
"As I checked in with the JTAC, I got the vibe that they wanted to make sure I employ (weapons) ASAP on the enemy," recalled Cisneros.
It was difficult because the coalition force were almost too busy to communicate. "They were under too much fire to make corrections (to the attacks he executed)," said Cisneros. "Eventually two other A-10s joined the fight. We were able to execute coordinated 30 mm attacks to neutralize the enemy and provide cover to HH-60 Pave Hawk casualty evacuation helicopters.
Cisneros remembered a conversation with one of the JTACs who was taking direct fire.
"'I'm shot, I'm handing the radio over to someone else,'" said the JTAC to Cisneros. "(It was) danger close - you could tell by his voice we hit the right target." Danger close means that to hit the enemy, the attack pilot is risking collateral damage to friendly forces.
In the end, coalition forces emerged without loss of life.
"They got all 90 of the coalition (members out)," said Cisneros. "The wounded were airlifted to nearby medical treatment facilities."
"It was definitely the most challenging mission I've flown," said Cisneros.
"You saved a lot of lives"
"I landed at Bagram and had maintenance look the plane over for battle damage," said Zurkowski. "That is when they found the two bullet holes in the airplane...I knew I had been shot at, but I didn't know I had been hit until then."
The next day the two pilots visited the wounded JTACs in the Bagram hospital. Cisneros recalled a JTAC asking "'Are you the A-10 that stayed when the weather got really bad?'"
When the two Thunderbolt drivers responded 'yes', the JTAC said, "'Brilliant! You saved a lot of lives!'"
"For an A-10 pilot there is no greater satisfaction then to meet the guys you helped that day and hear them say - 'You are the reason I am alive today,"
Lt. Col. Paul C. Zurkowski and Major Christopher D. Cisneros were recently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) with Valor for their efforts during an engagement in Afghanistan. The two pilots were deployed from the Maryland Air National Guard in the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
Brig. Gen. Allyson R. Solomon, assistant adjutant general-Air, commented Sunday, ""We in the Maryland Air National Guard are well trained and will rise to any occasion. These two pilots achieved what we all strive for. It's a testament to the fabulous people we have in this organization. They excelled when given the opportunity and we are proud of their accomplishments."