JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – On Apr. 6, 2008, one American Special Forces team and a company of Afghan National Army soldiers were delivered by Chinook helicopters to kill or capture a high value target. Master Sgt. Michael Franklin, now assigned to Headquarters Support Company, 46th Aviation Support Battalion as the Operations Non-Commissioned Officer in charge, was present as then Staff Sgt. Franklin, Blackhawk helicopter repairer, 101st Airborne Division.
“The operation was to capture an insurgent leader, and we were supposed to be the aerial reaction force (ARF),” Franklin said. “One of the things I remember about the initial briefing was how, just… remote, it was. There were dwellings in the cliff like Mesa Verde.”
That operation was named Commando Wrath and it resulted in Master Sgt. Franklin being awarded the Air Medal with Valor, alongside numerous other awards for actions of others on that day including eight Silver Stars and two Congressional Medals of Honor.
The CH-47 Chinooks, with their escort of AH-64 Apaches and UH-60 Blackhawks, carried the Special Forces team and ANA commandos into a rugged valley in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, called the Shok Valley, which had a river running through it. Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. Matthew Williams, a green beret that took part in the battle, recounted in an interview that they had to jump as high as twelve feet off of the helicopters into a river just to exit the aircraft.
Immediately the ground force operation met insurgent resistance, with American and Afghan casualties mounting quickly.
“Everything early was good, during the checks, and the high value target was reportedly still in the village. As the ARF, our job was to hang back from the objective in the air and wait. Once the main effort was on the ground, that’s when the fight happened. Everything looked fine from the air, but on the ground it was a different story,” Franklin said.
Only hours into the operation, the Special Forces team declared their force combat ineffective, and began focusing their effort on securing a casualty collection point for air evacuation.
“Each one of the SF guys carried a radio, so we were hearing every side of the conversation. Not just like the company commander or something, but everyone on the ground. As they made their way into the village the seriousness of the situation just kept escalating higher and higher,” Franklin said.
To complicate matters, the command and control Blackhawk helicopter had lost all of their communications.
“Lt. Col. John Lynch was the task force commander, and he was in the C2 bird, so he had to come over to our helicopter, but as soon as he did there was a call for CASEVAC, so we had to go back into the fight and land,” Franklin said.
The aerial reaction force had to return to the forward arming and refueling point three times, but kept returning to evacuate casualties and maintain their ad-hoc role as the command and control aircraft.
“We landed, and the ground forces started to bring their guys over to be loaded in; we helped them load their dead and wounded into the bird. Then we flew back, dropped them off at the FOB, refueled, and went back to the fight. By the time we had got back, MEDEVAC had come on station and began taking the remainder of the casualties off the battlefield,” Franklin said.
Eventually, Master Sgt. Franklin said that two AH-64s, an F-16, and an A-10 had come on station and that the helicopters had to maintain a distance from the fight while they made their bombing runs on the enemy force.
“Even though the attack aircraft were now on scene, we had to return and remain just outside of the ‘kill box’ because we were now the command and control bird,” Franklin said.
The other crew members; Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeremy Delk, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric Collier, and Sgt. Jonathan Fretwell were also recognized with the Air Medal with a Valor device for their display of heroism, valor and professional resolve, with disregard for their own safety. Master Sgt. Franklin’s citation reads, “Staff Sergeant Franklin displayed exceptional courage under fire and performed above and beyond the call of duty.”
“I don’t think I was performing an act of courage. The thing about being in a Blackhawk helicopter crew is that it’s never really a single decision to act. It’s a four way decision—it wasn’t a decision though. We just reacted. We had become so bonded as crew that when the call came to deliver the reaction force troops and speedballs, there wasn’t even a discussion,” Franklin said.
Master Sgt. Franklin attributes his reaction to training and repetition, “The four way acceptance that comes with being a Blackhawk crew, is that it’s our job to act whenever we are called. It just comes from repetition and training. Whether it’s dropping of soldiers and ammo, or picking up a sling load, or transporting a VIP. Our training makes it automatic. There was probably time to be afraid, but we were too focused on just doing our job.”
The Air Medal was created in 1942 and is awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Recipients of the Air Medal include Buzz Aldrin, Bruce Crandall, John McCain, and former president George H. W. Bush.