US Air Force Staff Sergeant Jeremy Hardy (right), a pararescueman, US Air Force Senior Airman Ron Ellis (left) and US Air Force Staff Sergeant Andy Kubik (center), a combat controller, members of a rescue team, pose in front of an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft at Hurlburt Field, Florida. This image is from the February 2000 Airman Magazine article "To the Rescue".
Pararescueman and retired Chief Master Then-Staff Sgt. Jeremy Hardy, a pararescueman, and his fellow airmen were on alert in Bosnia on May 2, 1999, when they got the call: An F-16 had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Serbia and an Air Force pilot was trapped behind enemy lines.
Hardy and the rest of his team immediately jumped into action. Their bravery saved the life of the man who would, 17 years later, be nominated to become the next chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein.
Their mission was harrowing from the start. The three-helicopter team dodged two SA-6 and one SA-9 surface-to-air missiles as they crossed the border, and had to evade 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft fire throughout the flight, said Hardy, who has since retired as chief master sergeant, said in a May 5 interview.
Hardy said tThe team got to where they thought then-Lt. Col. Goldfein was and orbited the site for a few minutes — all while dodging more fire — before getting the updated coordinates and moving to his actual location, Hardy said.
The MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter on which Hardy was riding was the first to spy the downed pilot. They radioed Goldfein, and used a classified code to authenticate it was actually him, before breaking formation and landing in a clearing. Then-Staff Sgt. Hardy, another pararescueman, then-Senior Airman Ron Ellis, also a pararescueman, and then-Staff Sgt. Andy Kubik, a combat controller, jumped out and ran toward Goldfein as he emerged from the woodline where he taken cover.
Then-Maj. Gen. David Goldfein, who at the time was director of air and space operations at Air Combat Command, stands in front of an HH-60G Pave Hawk at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., in 2010 as he reminisced about the night when he was shot down over Serbia. During a 2010 visit to the base, Goldfein was able to reunite with Lt. Col. Tom Kunkel, the pilot who rescued him.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Benjamin Wiseman/Air Force
Serbian troops were right on his tail, Goldfein told them.
Kubik and Ellis provided security as Hardy went forward and got Goldfein. They ran back to the helicopter under heavy gunfire from the Serbians.
"I could feel the rounds impacting the ground around us," Hardy said.
As bullets whizzed by them — they later found five bulletholes in the helicopter's fuselage — they got Goldfein in the helicopter. Because they were wearing body armor and Goldfein was not, they jumped on top him to shield him. They called for the pilot — then-Maj. Thomas Kunkel, who is now a colonel and head of the 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia — to take off, and the team headed back to Bosnia.
The rescue took less than a minute, Hardy said. Despite the heavy gunfire, Goldfein suffered no injuries in the rescue, aside from a minor injury to his hand from when his plane was hit and he ejected.
Few words were exchanged that day, even after the helicopter took off, since the rescuers were scanning for threats and evading more anti-aircraft artillery. After they landed back in Bosnia, the crews from the other two helicopters came over and shook Goldfein's hand, Hardy said. Goldfein said, "Thank you," and then he was whisked away in a C-130 to Aviano Air Base in Italy.
"We never know when some young airman is going to risk everything to come pull us out," Goldfein told the El Paso Times in 2007.
Then-Maj. Gen. David Goldfein visits with then-Lt. Col. Tom Kunkel, commander of the 41st Rescue Squadron, at Moody Air Force Base, in 2010. Kunkel was able to rescue the general and bring him back home safely.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Benjamin Wiseman/Air Force
But over the years, a deep friendship grew between Goldfein and the men who saved him that day. Goldfein has often spoken of his admiration for those men, and every year, he sends their unit a bottle of Scotch — "single malt, good quality," as he says — to show his appreciation.
In a 2010 Air Force release, Goldfein said the unit saves the last few drinks of each bottle until he comes to bring a new one, at which point they all polish off the old bottle off together.
But Hardy said Goldfein's commitment to the airmen who saved him goes far deeper than a bottle of Scotch.
Goldfein officiated Hardy's chief master sergeant promotion ceremony and his retirement ceremony, Hardy said.
And Hardy said that when his post-traumatic stress disorder "hit rock bottom," Goldfein was there to help, he said.
Hardy was serving as the superintendent of the cadet wing at the Air Force Academy at the time. Due to his PTSD, however, the Air Force planned to force him to retire.was making Hardy retire due to his PTSD, he said. Goldfein stepped in and got Hardy transferred back to Hurlburt Field, Florida, so he could retire there. That was important to Hardy, because the tight-knit special operations community at Hurlburt has a strong support structure for retired troops suffering from physical and emotional injuries.
"That's just one of many" examples of Goldfein helping his brothers-in-arms, Hardy said.
And by coincidence, Hardy was with Goldfein on April 26, the day his nomination was officially announced. Both men were at a conference near Hurlburt for wounded warriors and their caregivers.
"It's hard to describe him, other than just saying he's a phenomenal human being," Hardy said. "He is genuine, he's kind, he's giving. He is definitely a refreshingly unique person."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.