Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, Capt. Chris Keen, Master Sgt. Chad Moore, Tech. Sgt. Chris Harding and Staff Sgt. Nickolas Watson were honored during an awards ceremony May 18 at Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson, Alaska, for their heroic efforts while deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012. (Maj. Guy Hayes / Alaska National Guard)
Seven medals for valor went to one squadron in the Alaska Air National Guard for missions in Afghanistan that crossed services and countries.
Five members of the 212th Rescue Squadron received one Silver Star and six Bronze Stars with Valor for rescue missions in Afghanistan. The pararescuemen and pilots were credited with saving Danish soldiers, recovering Army pilots and assisting elite reconnaissance Marines.
“I definitely respect and admire what the awards mean, but at the same time, I look at it as doing my job and look at it as a team effort,” said Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, who was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars at the May 18 ceremony on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “The helicopter pilots made it happen, the other ground forces there made it happen. The guys on my team would have done the same, if not better.”
With recon Marines
When an elite group of reconnaissance Marines needed help, it called on the Alaska Air National Guard.
In August 2012, Alpha Company of the 2nd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion was planning Operation Lion’s Den IV G, a mission that would have Marines roping into a steep system of tunnels on the cliffs near Urmuz, Afghanistan. For days, the pararescuemen used their rope expertise to train the Marines.
During the mission, the team of Marines used the HH-60 Pave Hawk’s winch systems to explore and clear a network of enemy tunnels. The team faced sporadic small-arms fire, heavy machine gun engagements, mortar attacks and improvised explosive devices.
“We were taking gunfire, there were IEDs out there, there were some close calls for not just us, but also the Marines,” Cenna said. “We had a little bit of luck and skill on our side.”
One day, Guardian Angel Team Commander Capt. Christopher Keen’s dismounted patrol was hit by enemy fire, which isolated a member of the group. Keen identified the enemy’s position, which was close to women and children, and provided cover that allowed the team member to rejoin the group.
Master Sgt. Chad Moore worked the winch in one of the Pave Hawks, facing enemy fire to get the Marines in and out of the system. He was working on the ground when a tank hit a bomb. Moore ran to the injured crew, treating them and maintaining security.
Operation Lion’s Den IV G resulted in 11 enemy kills, along with the confiscation of “a fair amount of weapons” and other equipment, Cenna said. For their actions, Cenna, Moore and Keen were each awarded the Bronze Star with Valor.
A Danish rescue
The rescue calls for pararescuemen aren’t just for American troops. In one intense case, the Alaska guardsmen came to the rescue of Danish soldiers.
On July 29, 2012, a Dutch convoy was hit by a bomb near Gereshk, Afghanistan, disabling one vehicle and injuring the crew. The rescue Pave Hawk was forced to land in a field near the road due to the possibility of more improvised explosive devices, forcing the rescue group of Cenna, Tech. Sgt. Christopher Harding and Staff Sgt. Nickolas Watson to jump off into unknown and dangerous territory.
“We ran through a possible IED field,” Cenna said. “Well, I guess the entire country’s a possible IED field.”
The team sprinted through enemy fire, crossed a flowing canal and scaled a 12-foot embankment to get to the injured Danish soldiers. Watson was able to stop “massive hemorrhaging” of onesoldier while under heavy enemy fire. Cenna helped the other soldiers, and Harding directed close air support, according to the medal citation.
The team carried two Danish soldiers to the helicopter. Once there, they were told they would have to go back and get two more. After about an hour and a half, the crew took off with the injured Danish troops.
Cenna received his second Bronze Star with Valor for the rescue, along with Harding and Watson.
The Silver Star
Cenna was the lone Guardsman awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor, and it was for one of the most well-known rescue missions in the past year. The April 23, 2011, mission has already resulted in multiple Silver Stars and Distinguished Flying Crosses for the crew, along with the Mackay Trophy and the Jolly Green Association Mission of the year.
The mission began with an alert at 3 a.m. that an Army OH-58 Kiowa had gone down about 25 miles east of Bagram Airfield. Two Pave Hawks, call signs Pedro 83 and 84, arrived on site to find one pilot dead and another several hundred yards away from the wreckage. Cenna and Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline got out of Pedro 84 to recover the fallen pilot at the wreckage.
As soon as their Pave Hawk took off, it came under fire. The helicopter’s flight engineer, Tech Sgt. James Davis, was shot in the leg. With the helicopter also damaged, it returned to Bagram, leaving Cenna and Kline behind. Surrounded, they traded fire for 51⁄2 hours.
During the firefight, an 18-member Quick Reaction Force of soldiers from the Iowa Army National Guard moved in as a blocking force. One of those soldiers was killed in the fighting, and another was seriously wounded.
Eventually, two Apaches used Hellfire missiles to clear the area, allowing Pedro 84 to pick up Cenna and Kline, the injured Guardsman and the bodies of the Kiowa pilot and the QRF Guardsman.
Missions like these convinced Cenna to become a pararescueman. Helping others when they need it, and the camaraderie that comes with the tough job, is what keeps him around.
“It’s the idea of helping people when they really are in dire need,” he said. “Just to help people when things get bad and lives could end, we are there and prepared.”