United by Fire: Seymour fighter jets integral part of Pope combat saga
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 8, 2009 9:57 AM
There were few words exchanged when Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner and Capt. Jeremy Duffey were reunited at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday morning.
That's all they needed.
Their bond was born nearly a year before in Shok Valley, Afghanistan.
It trumps the Air Force Cross Rhyner will receive Tuesday at Pope Air Force Base.
It means more than the F-15E flight the combat controller was offered during his visit to Goldsboro.
A connection formed when 4th Fighter Wing aviators responded to a frantic cry for help -- that is what they share.
And they would tell you it is something far more powerful than the bombs dropped that day.
It was April 6, 2008.
Members of the 4th's 335th Fighter Squadron were in the middle of their tour at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan -- and had been flying close-air-support missions for Allied forces on the ground for weeks.
So it seemed routine when Duffey and his comrades were assigned to another.
"We knew we would be helping (a Special Forces unit) infiltrate the area and in their mission to kill or capture key Taliban personnel," said Maj. James Scheideman, Duffey's wingman. "However, we didn't know the severity of what it would develop into, or the fact that this place was so far northeast, U.S. forces had never been there."
The two Strike Eagle crews were nearby as CH-47 and UH-60 helicopters dropped Special Forces Detachment-Alpha 3336 into Shok Valley, but weren't convinced they could be of any assistance.
"We show up and there's a cloud deck, so we're kind of like, 'Well, are we going to be able to help out with this fight?'" said Capt. Prichard Keely, the weapon systems operator in Scheideman's jet. "So we go hit the tanker and kind of relax. And when we come back, the weather is gone."
As it turns out, they were just in time.
"We saw it happen. We saw the initial shots being fired from the insurgents," Keely said. "The guys on the ground were in a bad position -- a classic low-ground scenario. The kind you don't want to find yourself in."
Hundreds of insurgents had surrounded the Allied troops.
"Rhyner said as he is walking up the hill, the first thing he sees is the guy next to him basically gets his face blown off. They are hunched down in this terrace," Duffey said. "You could hear it in his voice. It was, no kidding, life and death."
But Rhyner's vantage point was making it difficult for the aviators to deliver ordnance.
"He was screaming, 'I need fires now.' The dude is yelling, screaming in the radio," Duffey said. "You're heart is going a thousand beats a minute. It's hard because you're like, 'I just want to drop a bomb right now.' But you can't. ... You have to relax and do it right."
Rhyner, too, tried to keep his poise, despite having a portion of his thigh blown out by a sniper's bullet.
And due largely to his effort -- and that of the A-64s and A-10s that joined the fight -- bombs started falling on target.
"He could have either frozen up and they would have been annihilated or he could have done what he did," Duffey said. "It's unreal. I still can't believe he is alive."
Seven hours later, Rhyner and the rest of his unit were airlifted to the hospital at Bagram.
No Americans were killed, but two Afghan commandos -- and hundreds of insurgents -- were lost in the battle.
The young airman had called in hundreds of rockets and a dozen bombs to get his team off that mountain alive.
And his comrades in the skies had delivered.
Hours after a mission they described as "grave" and "intense," those 335th aviators walked into the Bagram hospital.
"Most of (the troops) were unconscious because thet had literaly justhad bullets removed from them, stuff like that. One guy was getting his leg amputated. It was pretty intense," Duffey said. "So we went in there to see how everything was going ... and an Army major said, 'You guys saved our asses.' And the Afghan commander was singing some praises I had never heard before. I said, 'This is why we're here.'"
Keely felt the same way.
"To me, it was ultimately humbling," he said. "In reality, they were in the thick of it, so I want to thank them for being there and doing those things on the ground because they are the ones winning the big war out there."
In the months since the dust settled over that firefight in Shok Valley, the 4th Fighter Wing aviators partially responsible for saving Rhyner and his comrades have had time to reflect on all they saw that day.
And just why air power is so significant to the war being fought in Afghanistan.
"The only time (the insurgents) stopped shooting is when a bomb would fall," Duffey said. "On the radio, it was constantly like, 'We're dying. We're getting shot up.' But when a bomb would fall, there would be two or three minutes for our guys ... to try to get out of there."
So it was special knowing that after an incentive flight in a Strike Eagle, Rhyner, too, would understand the F-15s role in theater.
Even if it took him a near-death experience to get into the cockpit.
"It's pretty awesome," Rhyner said. "You know, to see the mission from the air."
Just as it was for the aviators to watch
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