The 1022nd Medical Company became “Charlie Med” or C Company, 5th Battalion, 159th General Support Aviation Brigade on Sept. 15, 2007, and almost simultaneously received notice it would deploy to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Wyoming Army National Guard aviation leadership immediately began work on an overall plan to deploy. Maj. Theron Ritzman, Lt. Col. Matthias Greene and Lt. Col. Dane Rodgers became commanders of teams that would almost ship off to war one right after the other. The unit has been Wyoming’s busiest deployed unit with nine deployments.
“We had to be more vigilant, because the enemy took advantage of the fact that we were out and about a lot more often,” Ritzman said about the first rotation.
The first two rotations deployed back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. The final rotation left in mid-2010. Each platoon included pilots, crew chiefs, flight surgeons, medics and administrative specialists as well as three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
Prior to the piece-meal deployment, leaders sought the right balance for the soldiers assigned to each rotation. Experience played a big part on when soldiers with the aviation unit would go because some junior pilots were fresh out of flight school, and other soldiers were new to the unit. Wyoming already had one advantage – plenty of experience flying over mountains, a quality favored by commanders in Afghanistan.
Soldiers came from Cheyenne, Casper, Douglas, Glenrock, Green River, Laramie, Riverton, Rock Springs and Sheridan. They were joined by some volunteers from Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas.
Each tour lasted approximately 10 months. The first rotation of 21 soldiers departed Cheyenne on Oct. 16, 2008, replacing aviation elements of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. The second rotation of 22 soldiers left on Aug. 5, 2009, falling in on the three Wyoming helicopters, adding to 12 ships brought by the California Guard and the Nevada Guard, to round out battalion assets and coincided with total troop increases in the country to more than 67,000. They would return to the United States June 8, 2010.
The final rotation with 31 soldiers took over for the West Virginia National Guard, which filled the gap between Wyoming rotations, on Jan. 11, 2011. That year, troop levels reached a peak number of more than 100,000.
During the first rotation, the search for deserter Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl became the focus of operations. He was being held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani Network after he left his station with the 501st Infantry, 4th BCT (Airborne), 25th ID. Bergdahl walked away from his unit on June 30, 2009, near the village of Yahya Kheyl, Paktika Province. According to soldiers involved in operations, at least six soldiers were killed during the large-scale search. The increased activity stirred up more Medevac missions.
“The whole country was shut down,” said Wyoming pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Shane Mickelson. “They were doing a lot of Special Forces raids.”
Charlie Med earned the name “Cowboy Dustoff” during these rotations. The second rotation performed 463 Medevacs of 542 total missions while based at Forward Operating Base Salerno and Outpost Orgun-E, a smaller outpost almost two miles south, in the Khost Province.
The Medevac operations at Salerno supported installations in Regional Command-East, with its Bagram Airfield headquarters, and the provinces of Khost, Paktiya and Paktika. Posts included Sharana, Gardez, Spera, Zerok, Chapman and Waziqua. The medevacs, sometimes two a day, required the crews to move quickly either day or night to get the aircraft off the ground at an average of 5 to 7 minutes.
Wyoming served the 101st Airborne Division (Rakkasans), and elements of the 5th and 25th infantry divisions; the Afghan army and police organizations; NATO troops; contract workers; and Afghan civilians.
“They (the Rakkasans) were all about taking it to the Taliban,” Sgt. 1st Class John Kowlok, a Medevac crew chief and medic said.
During the second rotation, in support of Forward Operating Base Chapman, on Dec. 30, 2009, an attack by key intelligence figure Humam Khalil Abu-Mulai al-Balawi detonated a suicide vest inside a gym, killing seven CIA operatives. Wyoming Guard soldiers Chief Warrant Officer 4 Derek Ray Fisbeck and Kowlok were part of Medevac crews who responded to carry casualties back to Salerno, and bore witness to one of the larger mass casualty events in the country.
Four Wyoming soldiers were presented medals while deployed with Charlie Med in Afghanistan. Sgt. Kevin Thomas was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” (valor) device for his performance as a flight medic during medical evacuation operations. Chief Warrant Officer 5 Richard Burger, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher Butler and Sgt. Benjamin Postma were awarded the Air Medal with “V” device.
For a July 17, 2009, mission in Nangahar Province, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brandon Erdmann received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Meritorious Unit Citation for his performance during medical evacuation operations under fire.