By Brandon OConnorOctober 28, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- In Capt. Lindsay Gordon Heisler's mind she was just doing her job.
From the moment she began training as an Apache pilot following graduation from the U.S. Military Academy in 2012 it had been ingrained in her that her job was to keep the ground forces safe.
Flying 500 to 1,000 feet above the forces operating on the ground, she and her copilot were in constant contact with the friendly forces as they "watched their six" for enemy combatants.
After deploying to Afghanistan in April 2015 as a first lieutenant for nine months, the operation schedule had become routine. Most nights out of the week were spent on missions protecting helicopters infiltrating ground forces and then watching over the Soldiers as they executed their objective.
Eight months in, an enemy contact or two a night was not out of the ordinary so when their mission on Dec. 5, 2015 required her and her copilot to clear out an enemy fighting position it was just another mission on a long deployment.
When a few hours later, with the Chinook helicopters inbound to pick up the ground force, they were forced to engage with a second enemy fighting position it was still like countless other missions they had flown in the proceeding months.
Then, seconds before the Chinooks touched down to pickup the Soldiers on the ground, the world erupted with enemy fire coming from every direction. Surrounded by mountains on three sides and the desert across the border into Pakistan on the fourth, Heisler and the second Apache flying that night along with the Chinooks and the Rangers on the ground were suddenly under attack from what they would later learn were eight different enemy positions.
"None of the pilots who are there had seen anything like it before," Heisler said. "I picture like Star Wars where you picture laser beams. It looks like that under your night vision goggles. It really accentuates any light you see so there are tracers of enemy fire everywhere."
There was no time to think. While communicating with the forces on the ground and the other helicopters in the air Heisler and her copilot, Warrant Officer 2 David Woodward, sprang into action and began fighting back. They placed themselves between the ground force and the incoming fire and worked to keep the enemies' heads down long enough for the Chinooks to land, pickup the Rangers and takeoff.
Anywhere they heard shots coming from they engaged. That was their job. To make sure the ground force got out safely and made it home alive.
"I don't remember thinking a lot," Heisler said. "We were just pulling the trigger because that's what we knew we had to do to make sure that they got out of there."
The engagement may have felt like it lasted forever, but in reality, it was over in about three minutes from the fires first erupting to the Chinooks being safely out of the area. Multiple helicopters took damage, but despite one of the Rangers later describing it as the direst situation he had been pulled out of, there were no casualties to Soldiers on the ground or helicopter crews.
For her actions that night, Heisler was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. On Oct. 24, she received the 2019 Alexander Nininger Award for Valor at Arms presented by the West Point Association of Graduates.
"I was truly honored mainly because I know some of the stories of people who have won in the past and just to be considered in the same population as those officers," Heisler said of receiving the Nininger Award. "It was really a shock when I got the phone call."
The Nininger Award has been presented annually since 2006 and honors a West Point graduate for his or her heroic actions in battle. Heisler is the first female officer to receive the award since its creation.
"Seeing a woman up there is kind of uncommon with a lot of our award ceremonies, especially because many of the officers who receive awards, or any awardees, are usually older because they've had so much experience and time in their career," Class of 2021 Cadet Caroline Mitchell said. "She was so humble and said preparation was what set her up for success. It wasn't like that she was an amazing person above anyone else. It was just doing what her job required of her."
Growing up, the Army was not something Heisler planned to join. Her grandfather had retired as a major general, but she wasn't planning to follow in his footsteps. That changed when the coach of the Army West Point women's soccer team reached out and invited her to visit the academy.
After a couple of recruiting trips to West Point, Heisler says she realized the opportunity to attend the academy was something she would regret passing up, so she committed to play soccer for the Black Knights.
Soccer brought her to the academy, but soon after arriving it was the people and the purpose of the academy that kept her at West Point.
"Pretty soon, you realize that you're here for a greater purpose," Heisler said. "You're here on behalf of your country and the United States Army. The entire time we were here, you realize that there's always a bigger picture. It's never about yourself."
Her four years at the academy, whether it was a game on the soccer pitch, balancing tough classes or going through military training, prepared her to operate in a pressure situation like the one she found herself in above Afghanistan only three years after graduation.
"It's pretty awesome," Class of 2021 Cadet Erynn Johns, a current member of the women's soccer team, said of seeing a former team member win the Nininger Award. "It just shows us that we actually have an impact once we graduate here and it really motivates the girls on the team and gives them someone to look up to and idolize. It's pretty cool to see that translate."
During her acceptance speech for the Nininger Award Heisler encouraged the current cadets to prepare every day to ensure they and the Soldiers they are leading are ready to act in a time of need and to do their job as it needs to be done.
"When all of you in here become platoon leaders, it will be your job to prepare your platoon for combat," she said. "Don't allow yourself to have it on your conscience if you could have done more to ensure your platoon is prepared to take the fight to the enemies of the United States."
Heisler is currently serving as company commander over Delta Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.