By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneSeptember 10, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- It wasn't Plan A that Staff Sgt. Matthew Kinney relied on when coming to the aid of wounded Soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
It wasn't Plan B either.
Nor Plan C.
On that day in October 2008, all the plans that flight medic Kinney and his fellow Medevac Soldiers had in mind were of no use as they worked to reach the injured while facing attack from the Taliban.
"If you can't think, you're not going to operate properly. Equipment alone doesn't do it for you. You've got to think through what's happening and do the mission," Kinney said.
"What I found in Afghanistan is that you constantly have a backup plan or a plan after that. You always have your equipment set up so it's quick and ready to go. And you do the mission no matter what the plan ends up being."
Kinney, who had already served two tours in Iraq, is a recipient of the Silver Star, the nation's third highest award for valor, for actions he took in Afghanistan. He spoke at the Aviation Life Support Equipment users conference hosted by Product Manager Air Warrior, Program Executive Office for Soldier at the Von Braun Center Aug. 24-26. He talked about the equipment - especially communications equipment -- that helped him do his job while serving with the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment attached to the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"Those Soldiers out there fight so hard because they know we're coming if they need us," Kinney said. "I've got to fly my end of the mission so they can come home ... I'm just there trying to do my job to get these guys out."
On Oct. 16, 2008, Kinney was involved in a Medevac hoist rescue that saved the lives of eight critically wounded U.S. and Afghan servicemembers, and his Medevac crew.
Kinney's Silver Star award described his "selfless actions under fire, his level head during a deteriorating situation and improvisation when all was otherwise lost."
"In a situation like this, you've got to think quick," Kinney said. "You've got to assess the situation and get the guys out in a quick manner."
En route to the Korengal Valley, Kinney prepared the crews of two Medevacs for hoisting down their medics simultaneously to expedite the loading of four casualties. As they got closer to their destination, they were told there were six casualties.
"We didn't have a good idea of what was going on. We didn't know what these guys were doing," Kinney said.
Once in the valley, visibility for the Medevac Black Hawks was poor due to weather that included hail. Red smoke indicated where the casualties were on the mountainside.
"Communication was key," Kinney said. "The pilots had to use a tree to keep their aircraft level.
The only thing I could see was my aircraft and 50 feet below me were clouds. The guys on the ground were listening to our radio traffic. I could hear the crew chief."
The pilots of the two Medevacs followed Kinney's instructions, lowering Kinney and another medic - Staff Sgt. Bradley Robbins - into a small mountain village known as Restrepo. On the ground, Kinney discovered six urgent casualties in a small mud and rock farmhouse that was serving as a shelter for several other Soldiers.
"The guys on the ground were pretty much in shell shock. The Taliban were attacking from two mountain slopes," Kinney said of what he discovered in the crowded building. "I knew every second I could save on the ground could save my aircraft, my patient and, possibly, my own skin. I knew we had to work quickly as a team to get these wounded out."
Kinney ordered all non-wounded Soldiers to security positions outside the building and began assessing the wounded. He and the other flight medic stabilized the most critical patient and directed another Soldier to prepare the Skedco litter for "packaging" the patient for the airlift. Kinney began working on the second critical casualty as Robbins prepared to hoist up the first patient. Machine-gun fire opened up on Robbins during the preparations.
Robbins took cover and Kinney called on the radio for support from the Apache helicopter overhead. While the Apache responded to the enemy fire, Kinney and Robbins hoisted the two patients to one of the Medevac Black Hawks.
"We didn't expect to take any fire that day," Kinney said. "A quick in-and-out ended up being 45 minutes of shooting on the ground."
As the patients were being lifted, Kinney discovered the enemy ambush fire coming from a ridgeline opposite of where the Apache helicopter was engaged. Kinney contacted the Apache pilot over radio and redirected its effort to suppress the enemy fire.
The hovering Medevac Black Hawk had taken two direct hits from enemy fire. The third patient and Robbins were hoisted to the Black Hawk under Kinney's directions. Robbins provided the three casualties with in-flight care as they flew out of the ambush kill zone to a military hospital in Jalalabad, about 20 minutes away by air.
"Plan A turned to Plan B. Plan C had gone out the window," Kinney said of his situation. "The Apache did everything I asked them to do and then some."
Kinney continued to treat the remaining three patients who were suffering from multiple shrapnel and gunshot wounds, and prepared them for their airlift. Enemy fire was coming from three directions. Kinney moved his patients to cover. He radioed the second Medevac Black Hawk, which carried a global positioning system that gave them a better indication of ground activity, and requested extraction.
Kinney prepared another Skedco extraction litter for one of his patients. While doing so, Kinney discovered several hoist straps missing. He procured a rope and made a harness that secured the Skedco for hoisting. As the firefight continued, the squad took another casualty. While securing the patients to be hoisted to the Medevac, Kinney was placed repeatedly in the wake of sporadic fire.
"During the whole mission, we were taking artillery and mortar rounds," Kinney said. "We were on the ground for one hour or maybe 45 minutes at about 8,000 feet (above sea level). Every muscle in my body was on fire.
"I knew the mission was going to come to an end. I was going to complete it or I was going to get shot."
At one point, he realized his makeshift harness ropes for the patient Sked were too long for hoisting, causing the litter to hang several feet below the aircraft once its cable was fully retracted. Kinney instructed the crew chief to lower the Sked back to the ground. He unhooked the Sked and instructed the pilots to "do a lap" so that their exposure to enemy fire was limited. Kinney shortened and repositioned the harness ropes, and it was hoisted to the Medevac.
Meanwhile, an eighth Soldier was wounded in the leg.
Despite heavy enemy fire, Kinney was able to get all five of his casualties hoisted to the Medevac. Kinney was ambivalent when telling his audience about the bullets flying by and stirring up the dust around him.
"All my attention was focused on the guy in the Sked. That was my main mission," he said.
Once his patients were safe, Kinney secured his gear, checked for any additional wounded and then was hoisted to the Black Hawk.
En route to Jalalabad, Kinney treated all five patients, controlling bleeding, administering pain control, dressing wounds and starting IVs. He treated partial amputations, femoral bleeding, and multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds. Upon landing, Kinney continued to assist in preparing the patients for surgery.
"It takes a team to do this," Kinney said. "You have to have two pilots and a crew chief that trust everything you say to do and to do it when you say it, or you will lose the aircraft."
Kinney returned from his 12-month deployment in January 2009. He has also received a Distinguished Flying Cross for another engagement, and, during his deployment, he responded to the aftermath of the July 2008 battle in Wanat, Afghanistan, that claimed the lives of nine Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. He is now a flight medic instructor at Fort Rucker.