The day started slowly for the A-10 pilots, using their legendary attack aircraft to provide some intelligence over targets in Afghanistan.
Their fairly routine tasking on Oct. 28, 2008, ended up anything but.
Capt. Jeremiah "Bull" Parvin and 1st Lt. Aaron Cavazos flew their Warthogs out of Bagram Airfield. Two hours into the flight, they received orders to a support troops in contact with the enemy more than 300 miles away.
"[We] said at the same time 'Those coordinates cannot be right, because it's over 300 miles away,'" Parvin said. "We queried again, and they said 'Yep, it's 320-plus miles away. It's time to get going.'"
After an hour of travel and refueling, the two pilots and their A-10s flew a four-hour close-air support mission in Badghis province. They saved the lives of six special operations Marines and killed dozens of insurgents through almost 20 dangerous close-air support runs.
For their actions, now-Maj. Parvin and now-Capt. Cavazos in January received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. The two described the firefight in a Feb. 5 interview with Air Force Times.
Capt. Aaron Cavazos, left, receives his medal from Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Ceaira Tinsley/Air Force
In dire straits
The two A-10s flew with their own tanker, with the plan to arrive with as much gas as possible to keep the Warthogs on station. As they got closer, the Marines' dire situation came into focus. The joint terminal attack controller on the ground kept calling for a GBU-38 joint direct attack munition as dozens of insurgents approached their position. Two formations of F/A-18 Hornets were in the area, but they couldn't get a clear target through heavy cloud cover.
"We needed to get under the weather somehow to get eyes on the ground," Cavazos said.
"The guys on the ground were in close contact," Parvin said. "They needed our help. We needed to get underneath that weather to provide the best possible attacks with the munitions we had."
The A-10s descended, through one heavy layer of cloud cover and another as dusk set in. The low cloud cover meant that the jets were well below the designated safe altitude before they could get an eye on the fight.
"I got as close as 400 feet to one of the ridge lines before I pulled through," Cavazos said. "I would have rather hit the mountain and at least try to save them versus fly above the weather and listen to them fight and die on the radio.
"They were approaching hand-to-hand combat. It was hour two of their fighting. We knew they were in dire straits."
The 17 members of Marine Special Operations Team 5 and translators set out on a routine patrol that day from a forward operations base on high alert. They expected some resistance. Less than 2 miles from the base, they were attacked by 40 to 50 insurgents.
Six of the Marines got separated in a compound off the roads and were surrounded. They fell back to one house. Insurgents targeted the mud walls with rocket-propelled grenades and eventually hand grenades and small-arms fire. The house caught fire, as insurgents ran up to the window of the house and shot at the Marines inside. One insurgent entered the house and shot at the Marines in a hallway.
"Imagine it's like a home invasion, but it's six versus 60," Cavazos said.
The group's corpsman took a round to the helmet, and another Marine was shot in the bicep. On the radio, the joint terminal attack controller relayed coordinates to the A-10 pilots above.
"What drove us was the urgency of the JTAC, that they were in close combat," Parvin said. "They needed munitions, and they needed munitions now."
It was pitch black as the A-10s descended through the clouds, and the pilots switched on their night-vision goggles. They could see tracers flying, and the fire burning the house where the Marines were holed up. The pilots knew they needed to act fast, and so they turned on their jets' overt exterior lights, letting the combatants know they were there and encouraging the insurgents to fire on them.
"We let everybody know that we were there," Parvin said. "Part of that decision-making was seeing the fire on the ground. We thought if we can draw any fire, let's try to draw that fire away from them and toward us."
The JTAC passed along the "nine-line" of targeting information. Parvin fired the first white phosphorus rockets on positions where insurgents had their heavier weapons, and Cavazos followed with the first shot of the jet's GAU-8 30 millimeter cannon to "very devastating effects," Parvin said.
The Marines were well within the "danger close" range of 60 meters, sometimes as close as 20 meters from the 30mm rounds. After multiple runs, the Marines began to retrograde out of the house and toward a nearby quick reaction force. The group ran east down a road, with insurgents giving chase.
"They are pretty much running for their life and they are being chased down by people they can audibly hear yelling at them and running after them," Cavazos said. "And they have an interpreter with them who is also telling them what they are saying, and it's not nice things."
The Marines turned on their infrared strobe lights so the pilots could easily see they were friendlies. The pilots, able to differentiate the Marines from the enemy, were able to more easily target their fire.
"Imagine running, shot twice in the arm, and you look up and see an A-10 somewhere between 500 and 1,000 feet [above ground level] pointing right back behind you and all of the sudden it shoots about a hundred hand grenades 30 meters back behind you," Cavazos said. "That's an experience I don't really want to have, but I'm glad that they made it."
The pilots flew eight to 10 gun runs each, eventually having to conserve their ammunition so they could protect the Marines as they made it back to friendlies. Parvin said he eventually returned to base with about 100 rounds left, of about 1,350 that an A-10 carries.
"It went from killing fire to like I'm still trying to kill you but I'm going to try to preserve some rounds to where I can at least get your head down and make you think twice about continuing to chase these guys," Parvin said.
The Marines were able to make it back to the rest of their unit, and the insurgents eventually began to disperse. Parvin and Cavazos stayed on station for another hour and half, watching over the Marines as they returned to their forward operating base and covering a Medevac helicopter that picked up the injured. The tanker stayed on station, letting the A-10s refuel multiple times.
From takeoff to landing back at Bagram, the mission took about eight hours.
Awards for valor
Being in the A-10 community means flying for the guys on the ground, Parvin and Cavazos said. The Marines were in a dire situation and fought their way out.
"They relied on each other, and they fought like no American should ever have to fight," Cavazos said. "But they did it, and they did it well. ... These guys are heroes."
In 2010, the six Marines were recognized for their actions that day. Then-Staff Sgt. Mark Robinson received the Silver Star. Then-Gunnery Sgt. Jody Wagner, then-Master Sgt. Richard Wells and then-Capt. Christian Pfeiffer received the Bronze Star with Valor. And then-Chief Hospital Corpsman Joseph Clairmont received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with V device.
About a year after the mission, Parvin was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, and received a call from Pavazos. The Marines from the mission wanted to track them down, and give them a plaque as a way to thank them for their help that day. In addition, the Marines reached out to the Air Force to urge them to recognize the pilots.
"It was the first time in my life that I thought to myself 'This is it, we're going to die, we're not going to make it out of this,'" Wells, now a master gunnery sergeant and senior enlisted adviser to the Marine Special Operations School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said at the medal ceremony for Parvin on Jan. 29, according to a news release. "[If it wasn't for him] I don't think I'd be doing this interview right now. I'm certain that I wouldn't have made it out."
Parvin is the director of operations of the 75th Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. Cavazos was awarded his Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor during a ceremony Jan. 23 at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where he is an F-35 pilot and weapons officer with the 61st Fighter Squadron.
The A-10 in this instance was called on for this mission because of its ability to loiter on the area and fly low in a tight position, Parvin said. While the A-10 is not the only jet that can provide close-air support, its pilots are a close-knit community that is especially trained and focused on protecting guys on the ground.
"We didn't think about getting shot at, we didn't think about any of that other than making them not get shot at anymore," Cavazos said.