JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – On July 12, 2018, a U.S. Army Air Ambulance (MEDEVAC) helicopter crew had been alerted to an urgent MEDEVAC mission request. The mission was to only take twelve minutes of air travel time from AP Lightning, Afghanistan to the landing zone south of their post. Captain Ben Krzeczowski, now assigned to Charlie Company, 1-52nd General Support Aviation Battalion as the company commander, was present as then Capt. Krzeczowski, platoon leader, Charlie Company, 6-101st Combat Aviation Brigade.
“We had just repositioned to Lightning from Camp Dahlke the day prior to extend our coverage range in Paktika province. When the call came it was only 0600 (6:00 a.m.) but it was already our second mission of the day,” Krzeczowski said.
The mission of his Black Hawk helicopter crew was to provide around-the-clock point of injury medical evacuation coverage to the area. Capt. Krzeczowski was the pilot in command, his copilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Cole monitored the radio and aircraft systems, while his platoon sergeant Sergeant First Class Andrew Six, Sergeant Armando Yanez, and Specialist Emmanuel Bynum crewed the aircraft’s cabin.
“We were call sign Dustoff Two-Four, and the lead aircraft on the flight. I remember Sfc. Six spotting the purple smoke that marked the landing zone and helping to orient us for a landing but as soon as we made our approach the aircraft began taking fire,” Krzeczowski said.
His flight crew sprang into action, Sfc. Six and Spc. Bynum provided cover to Sgt. Yanez as he ran to the casualty under withering fire. There were Rangers already on scene providing security, and they suppressed the enemy force as the crew moved the casualty back to the landing zone. One of those securing the landing zone was Sfc. Christopher Celiz, a Ranger that had moved from behind cover to put himself between the aircraft and enemy to provide suppressive fire.
“Just as we took off, Bynum called out over his headset that he’d seen another soldier get shot. One of the Rangers pulling security in the landing zone,” Krzeczowski said.
That moment is what separated Ben and his crew as extraordinary. The Ranger, Sfc. Celiz, needed immediate evacuation.
“The ground force requested that we return immediately. I made a call over the aircraft internal communication system to ask the crew if they could handle an additional patient and Sfc. Six immediately responded, ‘yes.’ Once we had landed again, Spc. Bynum jumped out into heavy enemy fire and began pulling security for us and Sfc. Six ran to the litter team on the ground and assisted their movement of the patient to the bird. My aircraft would have been critically damaged if it weren’t for Chris, and we owed him our lives.” Krzeczowski said.
The flight medics sprang into action, assessing Sfc. Celiz and rendering treatment. The decision was made to fly all the way to Dahlke so that the patient could receive the critical care needed from the Forward Surgical Team, even though the aircraft had received significant damage. The aircraft’s hydraulic system had sustained damage as a result of the twenty-two rounds that had struck the aircraft during the mission, and as a result the master caution light had come on. The aircraft was no longer air-worthy after landing at Dahlke, and the crew had to cross load their equipment into a spare helicopter and continue their shift afterward. Despite their heroic effort, Sfc. Celiz died of his wounds at Camp Dahlke.
“I believe the MEDEVAC mission in general is courageous and my crew performed exceptionally; I couldn’t be prouder of them and our community. 'When I have your wounded’ is a mentality so engrained in the Dustoff culture that I believe any other MEDEVAC crew would have executed the mission the exact same way—we were just the ones on duty that day. Courage, to me, is putting your life on the line to save the life of another,” Krzeczowski said, “as demonstrated by Sfc. Chris Celiz who died protecting my crew.”
Capt. Krzeczowski, CW2 Cole and Sfc. Six received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Sgt. Yanez and Spc. Bynum received the Distinguished Fly Cross that was upgraded to the Silver Star for their actions that day. His citation reads, “For heroic actions and valorous achievement under hostile fire … Captain Krzeczowski refused to leave a wounded soldier on the battlefield, completely disregarding his own safety.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross was established on July 2, 1926, and is currently awarded to any persons who distinguish themselves by single acts of heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. Notable recipients include Bruce Crandall, John McCain, and Buzz Aldrin.