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11 airmen survived 2006 confrontation in Sudan

Trapped in Sudan: 11 airmen in an HC-130 ‘taxi' run. 150 Sudanese soldiers with weapons. It added up to trouble.

Oct. 28, 2009 - 12:17PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 28, 2009 - 12:17PM  |  
An HC-130P takes off from Camp Lemonier on April 4. The organization's mission is to prevent conflict, promote regional stability and protect coalition interests in order to prevail against extremism.
An HC-130P takes off from Camp Lemonier on April 4. The organization's mission is to prevent conflict, promote regional stability and protect coalition interests in order to prevail against extremism. (DAREN REEHL / AIR FORCE)
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One senior airman threw his weight against the door of the HC-130 King as 150 armed Sudanese soldiers surrounded the search-and-rescue plane. He and the 16 other crew members had their orders from the State Department — "If someone comes on the plane, shoot 'em."

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One senior airman threw his weight against the door of the HC-130 King as 150 armed Sudanese soldiers surrounded the search-and-rescue plane. He and the 16 other crew members had their orders from the State Department — "If someone comes on the plane, shoot 'em."

What started out as "taxi duty" to pick up a U.S. military liaison in the Darfur region was now stretching into a five-hour confrontation between the Americans and the Sudanese. The soldiers were convinced the airmen were at the airfield to collect evidence of war crimes, not fly a husband back to his pregnant wife.

The classified Air Force mission nearly cost the 11 airmen and six Guam National Guardsmen their lives and could have launched the U.S. into another armed conflict if they hadn't kept their cool.

The confrontation happened three years ago but is coming to light only now because eight of the 11 airmen on board received valor medals this summer for their actions.

In his initial report to U.S. Central Command, the commander of the 79th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron didn't note the airmen had been taken hostage during the mission. Three months later, CentCom received a corrected report, but it was too late for the airmen to receive proper crisis counseling or an adequate intelligence debriefing. The squadron's command, Air Combat Command, referred all questions about the mission to Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon.

In an e-mail to Air Force Times, senior spokesman Andy Bourland wrote that officials had reviewed the mission and discussed it with the major commands involved, though he didn't list them.

"Because of the classification of the details surrounding the incident, we are not able to comment on it at this time," Bourland wrote.

Later, spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ann Stefanek issued written responses to specific questions about the valor medals and the misreporting of the mission.

Retired Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff at the time, told Air Force Times he had never heard of the mission.

Air Force Times first learned of the mission from the awards packages submitted by the squadron commander. The details of what happened during those five hours were gleaned from classified documents about the mission as well as interviews with military and State Department officials.

Here is what the crew of the HC-130 King — call sign PAT 332 — faced that day, Nov. 28, 2006.

Duffel bags, body bags

Most of the aircrew arrived in Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, two months before Nov. 28, spending their time sitting alert and flying training missions.

They understood the danger of flying into Darfur, the epicenter of the struggle between the Sudanese government and the rebels, who call themselves the Sudanese Liberation Army. In just three years, from 2003 to 2006, fighting between the factions had left more than 400,000 civilians dead, according to estimates from the United Nations.

Despite the violence, the aircrew didn't hesitate when an assignment to Darfur came up. A military liaison needed a ride from Al-Fashir airfield back to Camp Lemonier so he could be with his pregnant wife, who was sick.

The mission seemed straightforward: Fly to Al-Fashir, fly back to Camp Lemonier. Stop in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, coming and going. Crew members received short intelligence briefings and images of Al-Fashir taken before 2003, when Sudanese military operations out of the airfield had increased. For their protection, the eight crew members would be accompanied by six members of the Guam National Guard. Three maintainers also would make the trip in case of any mechanical emergencies.

At 8 a.m. under fair conditions, PAT 332 took off from Camp Lemonier and flew 3½ hours to Khartoum. Waiting for them on the ground was a U.S. Embassy representative. An hour later, the plane took off for Al-Fashir.

The HC-130 made its approach to Al-Fashir two hours later. As the wheels touched down, crew members watched as Sudanese soldiers — 50 to 100 feet apart along both sides of the runway — turned and pointed their AK47s at the plane. Also near the airfield were anti-aircraft guns. In the background was a garrison, not shown in the images.

Waiting for the plane were two U.S. military liaisons with six locked duffel bags. One of the men, the crew members assumed, was the father-to-be. They were wrong. The military liaison they had come to pick up was already gone, the men said. He had left five days earlier but needed his bags of equipment and four 9mm pistols.

The crew members loaded the bags and hid the guns in the plane before they checked in with airfield officials, who requested that co-pilots 1st Lt. Timothy Saxton and 1st Lt. John Cuddy deliver their flight plan to the air traffic control tower. Saxton and Cuddy agreed to do as requested but asked if they could keep the plane's engines running while the officers were driven to the tower because one of the turboprops was hard to start. Their request was denied, and they shut down PAT 332.

While Saxton and Cuddy were away, a dozen armed Sudanese dressed in civilian clothes circled the plane. Aircraft commander Maj. James Woosley instructed the crew members to monitor their movements with a sensor underneath the aircraft that has a camera inside. All HC-130s come equipped with a FLIR ball — FLIR stands for forward-looking infrared radar.

Uniformed Sudanese soldiers worked near their three Mi-24 helicopter gunships and one An-26 turboprop that sat on the runway. The soldiers loaded blue canisters filled with explosives onto the An-26, bombs they intended to drop on villagers.

Across from the Sudanese aircraft sat 15 Mi-8 Hip helicopters operated by the U.N. Two more loaded with wounded and dead children landed near PAT 332. Aircrew members used their cell phones and personal cameras to take pictures of the humanitarian aid workers rushing to save the wounded and carrying the dead off in body bags.

Transfixed by what was going on outside, the crew members barely noticed when Saxton and Cuddy returned. The co-pilots had received approval to take off for Khartoum. All the engines started, and the HC-130 taxied off the ramp, onto the runway and past a Sudanese intelligence official.

As the HC-130 approached, the official looked directly at the FLIR ball, which had its camera moving side-to-side searching for threats. He reached for his cell phone and started barking orders into it.

Seconds later, the air traffic control tower radioed for PAT 332 to return to the ramp. Woosley reluctantly turned around, fearing he'd hear the fire of the anti-aircraft guns if he didn't.

Spying charges, rape threats

Woosley and navigator Capt. Jesse Enfield walked out to meet the U.S. military liaisons who had given them the duffel bags when they arrived.

The U.S. officials explained that the Sudanese intelligence officer had called PAT 332 back because he was worried the aircraft's FLIR ball had recorded images of the blue canisters being loaded onto the An-26.

Then, nine Sudanese intelligence and military officers — led by the one who ordered PAT 332 to return — rushed up. They began accusing the crew members of espionage and demanded to search the plane.

Woosley denied the request. The Sudanese officers yelled at Woosley and Enfield, threatening to kill them. They ordered Woosley to pick one officer to leave the plane to pay a $400 landing fee. Not wanting one officer to go alone, he sent Cuddy and Saxton.

About this time, Woosley went back into the plane. He ordered the crew members to put on their body armor and conceal handguns underneath their uniforms since he had told the Sudanese that they were unarmed. Then, he put Master Sgt. Paul Widener in charge because Cuddy and Saxton were gone and he and Enfield were outside with the Sudanese.

Woosley then headed back outside, leaving the plane's door open to show the Sudanese the airmen had nothing to hide. The Guam National Guardsmen, though, moved into positions to defend the aircraft, and Widener radioed back to Camp Lemonier to report the events.

Face to face again with Woosley, the Sudanese soldiers then demanded to inspect the duffel bags. Assured by the U.S. military liaisons there was no classified material inside, Woosley agreed. Without the key to open the bags, though, Enfield and one U.S. military liaison cut open the bags for the Sudanese to search.

Angry at finding only clothes and personal possessions, the Sudanese officers demanded to know why Woosley and Enfield would fly from Djibouti to Darfur to pick up duffel bags. Both officers relayed the story about the father-to-be and told the Sudanese officers the U.S. Embassy could corroborate their mission.

That answer didn't satisfy the Sudanese. About 20 Sudanese soldiers joined the nine officers and circled Woosley and Enfield. One grabbed Woosley, and another slapped his sunglasses off his head.

Woosley and Enfield pushed through the crowd and got back onto the aircraft. Cuddy and Saxton had also returned. The U.S. military liaison told the crew members the Sudanese officials planned to arrest them for espionage and have them executed.

A Sudanese soldier then asked Woosley if there were any women on board. The crew had two female members, Staff Sgt. Kelly Hall, flying crew chief, and Senior Airman Kimberley Vanhaaster, loadmaster. When Woosley answered yes, the soldier countered that women didn't belong in the military. He said the women would be raped and sold once the crew was arrested. He then asked to see the women. Woosley said no. When Woosley got back on the plane, he had Hall and Vanhaaster move to the middle of the aircraft, where they were harder to spot.

No U.S. support, 150 Sudanese

The sun began to set. It was about 5:45 p.m. and the plane had been on the ground almost three hours.

One of the U.S. military liaisons radioed Woosley to give him two pieces of information: First, the Sudanese officials planned to close the airfield in 15 minutes, then arrest and probably execute the crew. Second, State Department officials had been informed of the confrontation and had ordered Woosley not to leave the plane or let anyone on the plane.

"We were working with the [Sudan] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the intel folks as well. And I think we took a … very strong line, which is, if someone comes on the plane, shoot ‘em. I think it was just through our embassy and myself, just making clear that these guys were not to give over anything to the Sudanese," said Jendayi Frazier, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College who was then U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Woosley ordered the crew to lock down the aircraft. They would not be leaving PAT 332 without a fight.

After 6 p.m., two trucks carrying about 50 Sudanese soldiers drove up next to the HC-130. The soldiers, carrying AK47s, emptied out of the trucks and took firing positions around the aircraft. Soldiers positioned two .50-caliber machine guns and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher near the tail and multiple 7.62mm machine guns with tripods on the sides of the plane. An old firetruck drove up and parked in front of the plane's nose, cutting off the crew's exit.

Outmanned and outgunned, the crew members and guardsmen maintained their defensive positions. The officers and Widener huddled inside the cockpit trying to decide their next move.

The U.S. military liaisons watched the scene unfold from the runway. Because they knew the Sudanese army wasn't well-trained, they worried that one trigger-happy soldier would set off a firestorm. One liaison stepped up to a Sudanese intelligence officer and warned: Kill the airmen and prepare for war with the U.S.

A Sudanese soldier tried to force his way inside the aircraft. Senior Airman Chris Fuller leaned into the crew entrance door at the front of the plane. It was the one door the crew couldn't lock because it could only be locked from the outside. After a few seconds, the soldier backed off, but the others continued yelling at the aircraft.

Widener radioed Camp Lemonier to give an update. He asked if PAT 332 could expect any support. Headquarters told him no aircraft had taken off.

More than four hours after being ordered back to the ramp, a U.S. military liaison demanded to speak with the airfield commander, a Sudanese colonel. The colonel told the liaison he would have to consult with his superior, a lieutenant general. None of the documents reviewed by Air Force Times explained why the liaison didn't ask to speak with the colonel sooner.

The colonel stepped out of the room. When he returned, he told the liaison the aircrew could leave after paying a landing fee. The liaison explained the fee had already been paid; the colonel didn't ask for proof of payment and told him the crew could leave. This time, it was the liaison's turn to leave the room. He radioed Woosley with the news.

The Sudanese soldiers backed up and the firetruck drove off.

Woosley and the crew members became blurs of motion, getting the plane ready for takeoff in eight minutes instead of the usual 30.

PAT 332 taxied to the runway for a second time. This time, the wheels left the ground.

A silence fell over the crew members, and they stayed quiet all the way back to Camp Lemonier.

Report mistake, lesser medals

A debriefing by an intelligence analyst, psychologist and flight surgeon is standard protocol to reintegrate an airman held hostage. But not even the squadron intelligence officer was waiting when PAT 332 landed because squadron commander Lt. Col. Christopher Austin hadn't reported the mission as a hostage event to Central Command's Joint Personnel Recovery Center, which would have put the reintegration process in motion.

An enlisted intelligence specialist had been on the ground at Camp Lemonier and started to debrief the crew members, but an unidentified officer ended the session and ordered everyone to go to bed. They were scheduled to fly a training mission the next day.

The mission left aircrew members with questions about their safety. One worried that his name had been taken by Sudanese intelligence officials and his family was vulnerable. A squadron intelligence officer told him that his name probably had been entered into Sudanese intelligence databases but not to worry about it. The crew member couldn't believe what he was hearing.

More than 70 days passed before Central Command learned about the mission. None of the documents stated who corrected the report. CentCom intelligence officials tracked down the crew members and National Guardsmen to file a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency report.

The help from Central Command, though, came too late for at least two aircrew members. They now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are no longer allowed to fly because of their diagnosis. Both list the mission to Al-Fashir as the cause of their symptoms, which include severe anxiety and depression.

Today, the Air Force acknowledges Austin made a mistake. The service would not allow Air Force Times to speak with Austin, and it is not clear why he didn't alert Central Command.

"Since [the misreported mission], efforts have been made to ensure commanders and personnel at all levels have a better understanding of the reintegration process," according to an Air Force statement.

The Air Force did not appropriately document the mission to Sudan on aircrew and Guam National Guardsmen's service records until July 2009. If the service hadn't updated its records, the airmen and guardsmen would not have been eligible to cite the mission for disability benefits, said Mary Schantag, co-founder of the P.O.W. Network, a veterans advocacy group.

The misreported event might also explain why officials downgraded the valor medals for eight of the aircrew members. Austin nominated Woosley, Enfield, Cuddy and Saxton for bronze stars with valor and four enlisted crew members for Air Force Commendation Medals with valor.

On June 29, Lt. Gen. Gary North, then commander of Air Forces Central Command, downgraded the medals to http://www.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/search.php?medal=27">Air Force Achievement Medals with valor.

"Justification does not support award recommendation," read the memo Air Forces Central Command sent to Austin. Austin may submit a reconsideration package by next June 29.

The aircrew's Sudan mission is receiving attention on Capitol Hill. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., a freshman congressman who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was recently briefed on the crew's mission.

"It's not surprising to hear about awards being downgraded but, when it happens, it's really a disservice to those award nominees," said Joe Kasper, Hunter's spokesman. "This incident is just one more example of service personnel not receiving the right form of recognition, the awards they deserve, and demonstrates the necessity for a thorough review of the military awards process."

———

Staff writer Sean D. Naylor contributed to this report.

See citation for crew's Air Force Achievement Medals:

* http://www.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/search.php?medal=27">Military Times Hall of Valor

Hour by hour on November 28, 2006

8 a.m. — PAT 332 takes off from Camp Lemonier, Djibouti.

11:30 a.m. — Aircrew lands in Khartoum to meet with embassy representatives.

3 p.m. — HC-130 lands at Al-Fashir.

3:40 p.m. — American crew is ordered to return to the ramp and to not take off from Al-Fashir after Sudanese intelligence official suspects the crew has filmed evidence of war crimes.

4:20 p.m. — Sudan intelligence officials inspect the six duffel bags loaded onto the HC-130.

5:45 p.m. — Sudan soldiers inform the aircrew the airfield is closing and the crew will be taken into custody.

6:20 p.m. — Truckloads of Sudan soldiers armed with AK47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns surround the aircraft.

8 p.m. — Sudan officials give the aircrew OK to leave.

8:08 p.m. — HC-130 Hercules takes off from Al-Fashir.

9:30 p.m. — Aircrew lands in Khartoum to refuel.

2 a.m. — Aircraft lands at Camp Lemonier.

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