An AH-64E Apache helicopter pilot assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Combat Action Badge in an award ceremony, Oct. 28 on Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia.
The gymnasium roared with cheers and applause as Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Duffney Jr. was awarded the Combat Action Badge for his actions while taking direct fire to his aircraft in March of 2003, nearly 20 years ago.
The Combat Action Badge is awarded for having been personally present and under direct hostile enemy fire during combat operations.
Duffney, a Springfield, Massachusetts native, entered the U.S. Army in 1981 as a Bell UH-1H Iroquois utility helicopter mechanic and crew chief. Shortly after basic and advanced training, he was assigned to the 25th Aviation Company in Stuttgart, Germany.
“I joined the Army as a Huey mechanic and had no intentions of becoming a pilot,” Duffney said. “Working as a crew chief, you get to fly around and I realized that I loved being in the air.”
After some contemplation and motivation from his wife Frances, Duffney submitted an application for flight school. In the fall of 1987, Duffney began his first day of warrant officer candidate school.
For the next 15 years, he was stationed and deployed all around the world as an elite attack helicopter pilot. However, his final deployment in the U.S. Army stood out among the rest.
In the spring of 2003, Duffney was deployed to central Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. There, he was appointed as the Pilot in Command of the lead AH-64D Apache helicopter for two deep attacks against Iraqi Forces in the vicinity of Al Iskandariyah.
Upon receiving a hasty update brief, Duffney led the mission from the base camp towards their first objective. They received very limited and ineffective small arms fire during the initial movement and the airfield appeared to be clear of threat, so Duffney continued to lead the team towards their next objective.
During this movement, the lights in the city and surrounding areas briefly went out, engulfing the city in complete darkness. When the lights came back on, the ground fire had become more intense and effective.
“Gunfire was coming from all directions, I got shot front, back, left and right," said Duffney. "In Desert Storm, we didn't have any firefights like this.”
Due to the growing intensity of ground fire experienced by the aircraft, the squadron commander made the decision to abort the battle handover and return to base. During the movement back to the assembly area, Duffney had taken impact to the right side of his aircraft, resulting in the loss of his utility hydraulic system. His ability to provide suppressive or offensive fire was severely degraded.
The second aircraft on his team, an AH-64D Apache flown by 1st Lt. Jason King and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Tomblin, had also been hit and lost the ability to communicate outside of the aircraft.
Duffney concluded that the aircraft had been shot down.
“Despite his aircraft’s limitations, Mr. Duffney made the decision to turn around, fly back up the route and find us,” said Tomblin. “Thankfully, he was able to reacquire visual contact with my aircraft and we continued toward our assembly area.”
The barrage of bullets was shocking both to seasoned Army pilots and combat newcomers.
Stepping out of his helicopter back at the base, Duffney said him and his fellow pilots all hugged each other.
At the time, the Combat Action Badge had not yet come to fruition. Two years later, on May 2, 2005, the Chief of Staff of the Army approved the creation of the Combat Action Badge to provide special recognition to U.S. Soldiers who personally engaged, or are engaged by the enemy.
One month later, Duffney retired from the Army after 24 and a half years of dedicated service.
“I wrote a few CAB letters of recommendation for my buddies after I retired,” said Duffney. “They offered to write me one in return, but I was retired and didn't want to deal with the hassle of paperwork.”
Throughout his retirement, Duffney continued to soar the skies as a maintenance test pilot at the Arizona National Guard Western Army Aviation Training Site (WAATS).
“I flew Apaches for the National Guard as a civilian contractor for the next 15 years,” said Duffney. “I spent 10 years in Arizona and 5 years in the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi.”
15 years later, in 2020, Duffney decided to do a voluntary recall to active duty service.
“Coming back into the Army after all those years of retirement was never my plan,” Duffney said. “I loved flying, but I was working as a contractor overseas in the UAE and separated from my family again, which is why I retired in the first place.”
Although returning to active duty was never his plan, Duffney says that he couldn't picture his life any other way.
“I thought coming back into the Army was a little crazy, especially at 59, but I still get to do the job I love,” Duffney said. “The Army needed maintenance test pilots, I was able to pick where I wanted to be stationed and I am enjoying it way more than I thought I would.”
Duffney also said that returning to service would reset his retirement date.
“In order to reset your retirement date, you have to do a minimum of two years and a maximum of three years,” Duffney explained. “We ended up resetting my retirement date from 2005 to 2024.”
The entire process took about a year and a half, and Duffney chose to come to the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia.
Nearly 20 years later, the 3rd Sqn., 17th Cav. Regt., command team embraced the opportunity to present Duffney with the CAB in front of the entire squadron and brigade command team.
“It was unexpected to receive it at such a large formation, but it felt so surreal to receive my CAB after all these years,” Duffney said. “ I really thought I would get it at the troop level but it was nice to have it done in front of my squadron and to have the brigade commander pin it on.”