By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneJune 9, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Chief Warrant Officer 4 Patrick Benson has more than the scars on his right leg to show for the air battle he fought while serving in Afghanistan.
He now also has an American Legion Valor Award.
This Kiowa pilot, stationed at Redstone Arsenal with the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office in the Program Executive Office for Aviation, was recognized May 16 during the 59th annual Valor Award Military Ball hosted by the Aviators' Post No. 743 of the American Legion, the only post exclusively for military flying officers. The ball was held at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.
The festivities were a long way from that day in September 2009 when Benson relied on his training and the capabilities of his Kiowa helicopter to fly him and his unconscious pilot out of a danger zone after successfully defending the Medevac (Black Hawk) helicopter it was assigned to escort.
"It was a very energetic area at the time," Benson said of the region surrounding Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. "It was one of the most kinetic areas of Afghanistan. We were assigned to reconnaissance and security. We provided convoy security for lift assets (Chinooks) and Medevacs (Black Hawks). There were few areas where we couldn't go."
During his deployment with the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Benson worked with Medevac units from the California, Wyoming and Nevada National Guards, all assigned to Operation Enduring Freedom. He was assigned to Task Force Pale Horse in support of the Regional Command East, Afghanistan.
"They are some of the best Medevac people I've ever seen," Benson said. "They went places they probably shouldn't have to get to wounded Soldiers and to get those Soldiers to the proper medical care they needed. They are very talented Soldiers."
Throughout the deployment, the abilities of Kiowa helicopters and their pilots were heavily relied on for mission reconnaissance and security in complex terrain conditions, flying 90 to 100 miles a month per airframe. Benson had been flying Kiowas in Afghanistan for about eight months when his helicopter was attacked by small arms ground fire during a Sept. 8 mission.
"We were a team of two and I was in the flight lead," recalled Benson, who was flying as pilot-in-command in a helicopter that features two-place pilot seating. His pilot was then Chief Warrant Officer 2 Adam Stead.
"We were sent out on one mission to provide security for infantry that were in the middle of a mission. Then we were called to go to an active area to help troops in contact with the enemy. They were working on and moving up a mountain, and we needed to provide an air assault to flush out, find, fix and finish the enemy."
The situation in what is known as the Shuriak Valley settled down, and Benson's Kiowa team left the scene to refuel and to clear the airspace so ground troops could shoot artillery at the enemy.
"But then we were re-tasked to do Medevac security at the same area where we had left," Benson said. "Two Soldiers were hurt and they were going to have to be hoist lifted out."
In such a procedure, a Black Hawk hovers at about 75 to 100 feet above the ground to drop a one-man hoist to, first, provide a medic to aid and assist the wounded Soldiers, and then to bring each Soldier up into the helicopter.
"The Black Hawk is very exposed during something like this," Benson said. "There was a lot of radio traffic indicating the enemy was in the area. I was scouting and trying to find what the infantry was telling me about. We were trying to find the enemy before they found us because we wanted to position ourselves between where the enemy was and the Medevac."
The Medevac picked up one Soldier, repositioned itself and then picked up the second Soldier. About the time the Medevac started to hoist up the medic, Benson's Kiowa was shot at.
"There was a lot of radio chatter. We were really intent on finding the bad guys," Benson said, as he and his pilot worked to position themselves to protect the Medevac helicopter.
"There was a loud noise and a concussion. Adam Stead was in the right seat at the controls. I realized I had been hit in the leg. There was a hole in the belly of the aircraft at my feet. Then I saw Adam was unconscious. Our aircraft started to pitch up and turn right. I grabbed the controls and recovered the aircraft. And I descended out of the valley."
Knowing Stead was still alive, although badly injured, Benson decided to land at the first friendly location - Combat Outpost Able Main in Konar, Afghanistan.
"The Medevac had been shot in the nose. But, at the time, it didn't affect the aircraft," Benson said.
The Medevac Black Hawk along with the second Kiowa landed at Able Main.
"I saw how highly skilled and trained the Black Hawk crew chief and the medic were," Benson said. "They worked together like two surgeons. They assessed the situation, put us on the aircraft and moved us to Forward Operating Base Abad in the Koner River Valley, where there was a Forward Surgical Team."
Benson had been hit in the right leg and right thigh by a round of shrapnel. Stead received a bullet wound to the left rear of his head.
"I've been shot at a few other times. But this was the first time enemy fire had made contact with me or the aircraft I was in," Benson said.
Once stabilized, both Soldiers were flown to Jilalabad. Benson had the first of four surgeries in Bagram, Afghanistan. Other surgeries, including a skin graft, were at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and Blanch Field Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky. Most recently, Benson had surgery in Huntsville to repair injury to his right ankle and is now recovering at home with his family in Clarksville, Tenn. Stead, who has been promoted to chief warrant officer 3 since the attack, is undergoing therapy and rehabilitation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
"All the medical care has been fabulous," Benson said. "All the medical procedures from the point of injury to recovery have been excellent."
It was the Army's extensive training - and its Kiowa technology - that saved Benson and Stead during their mission.
"Training does really work," Benson said. "Everything that I did that day I had in some form or another trained about or knew about."
Benson joined the Army in 1992, at age 21, with a dream to be a pilot.
"My brother told me if I wanted to fly helicopters I needed to join the Army," Benson said, referring to brother Francis Benson, who served in the Army as an Apache crew chief and who now works as a civilian at Redstone Arsenal.
"I started out in aviation maintenance with aircraft structural repair. But I had aspirations to fly."
Benson has served as a Kiowa helicopter pilot since 1996. Besides Afghanistan, he was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004.
"I really loved flying the mission," he said. "We do a lot of armed reconnaissance where we are right there with the good guys fighting the bad guys. The Kiowa has a tremendous track record for operational readiness. It's a very dependable airframe with a great mission."
Since January, Benson has been serving as the system safety officer for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, located in the Sparkman Center. He is looking forward to resuming his work responsibilities after about six weeks of recovery from surgery.
"This is a great opportunity to be a part of the emerging field of UAS," Benson said. "There are a lot of things UAS can do. The payloads are endless. It's an awesome privilege to serve here."
Benson is working specifically with the Hunter UAS, as the program undergoes the fielding of new programs and new subsystem upgrades.
He hopes to be cleared to fly again. But until then, Benson plans to take advantage of all he can learn while working with the UAS Project Office.
"I'm getting a better understanding of the whole Army system," he said. "It's about seeing how acquisition works, and gaining a better understanding of how things affect what's going on in the field."
Benson received his American Legion Valor Award with his wife, Stacey, at his side. His family includes Collin, 15; Riley, 13; and Layne, 9.
"It was a very professional ceremony," he said of the award's program. "Each service branch selects their recipient. All three of us (including a Navy and an Air Force officer) were involved in attacks that happened during Operation Enduring Freedom."
Since World War II, the Valor Award has been presented annually to recognize military aviators who performed a feat of courage or bravery during the prior year. The Valor Award was written into official Air Force regulations in 1953. In 1970, it was expanded to include a member of each of the three services who performed "a conspicuous act of valor or courage during an aerial flight." The Army and Navy published their official regulations recognizing the award at that time. Valor Award recipients are now chosen at the highest levels of their respective service and approved by the office of the corresponding Chief of Staff.
Benson, who has also received a Purple Heart and a combat action badge related to the September 2009 attack, is somewhat uncomfortable about being singled out for his service. As he is honored, his thoughts are with the other military pilots and Soldiers who are currently defending freedom and democracy in a war zone.
"There are a billion stories like this every day," he said, referring to the Sept. 8 mission. "Every day, there are Americans out there doing this same stuff. There are so many servicemembers doing great things in battle. We are doing what we're trained to do. Every single day, another American is doing something like what we were doing that day."