Two airmen on Friday were awarded the oldest medal in U.S. military aviation history for their actions in Afghanistan on Jan. 5, 2016, that left their aircraft riddled with bullets.
Capt. Charlotte Raabe and Staff Sgt. Gary Bjerke of the 9th Special Operations Squadron received the Distinguished Flying Cross at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, for “conducting an emergency aerial resupply to U.S. troops while under direct fire from the enemy,” according to the Air Force.
Both airmen were crew members aboard an MC-130J Commando II aircraft as it conducted an emergency airdrop of ammunition and critical supplies to an Army Special Forces team that was under fire in a remote region of Afghanistan, said Brig. Gen. William Holt II, the director of operations at Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters.
“When the crew was told they had to put their bundles within 50 meters of the compound walls, or risk losing it to the enemy, they didn’t hesitate,” he said. “And they didn’t hesitate because there were friendly forces on the ground who were under fire from 360 degrees around the compound. They had already taken two casualties and were in danger of being overrun.”
Raabe served as the crew’s combat systems officer, and Bjerke acted as the loadmaster.
In order to avoid the enemy’s small arms and anti-aircraft fire, Raabe was forced to make recalculations on the aircraft’s flight path. Although the crew began taking fire, Raabe pushed ahead with the airdrop, while Bjerke readied the package.
“It did not set in that we were taking fire until the ramp and door had opened,” Bjerke said. “I distinctively remember hearing the cracks of the bullets passing behind the aircraft. The only thing I could think of was that this resupply needed to be executed successfully. I was entirely focused on doing what I had to in order get the drop off.”
Despite the incoming the fire, the crew was able to land the airdrop bundle within 20 meters of the Special Forces team on the ground.
A JTAC assigned to the Special Forces team on the ground wrote a letter of appreciation to the aircrew that was read at the award ceremony.
“Thanks for putting your aircraft, and, most importantly, your crew, at risk. Your drop was spot on. We were out of water and critical on ammo, one magazine or less per dude remaining,” the JTAC wrote. “I’ve never seen anything like what you did that day.”
When the aircrew passed over the friendlies, “every compound within 800 meters of us erupted with small arms fire,” he confirmed.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is the 15th highest American military decoration awarded to officers and enlisted members.
Other aviators who received the award include Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Amelia Earhart and President George H.W. Bush.
These awards can be awarded for both “extraordinary achievement and heroism; very few are awarded for heroism,” Holt said. “Today, both of these are valor awards for heroism in combat.”
“It is very humbling to receive this award,” Bjerke said. “I was surprised when I was notified, and I am honored to receive it.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.