On the night of Sept. 8, 2009, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Todd Peterson and Chief Warrant
Officer 4 Bunky Litaker sat in the cockpit of their Chinook helicopter and knew they were
looking at each other for the last time.

"I looked at Bunky and he looked at me and we knocked fists like that, and I was like, 'That is the last time I'm seeing that dude, ever,'" Peterson said. "It was just one of those things, you know'"

The two warrant officers, both of the 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation
Regiment, were part of a short-notice mission to retrieve a targeted individual in Afghanistan.

And though Peterson and Litaker agree that not one man in the three Chinooks on the mission believed they would live to see the next day, they took off for a second time and returned to the objective area.

The still classified action resulted in awards to the participants of 18 Distinguished Flying Crosses, among the highest given by the Army, and two Air Medals for Valor - a medal for every U.S. crewmember involved. Eight of the DFCs were presented at a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Monday.

"When Command Sgt. Major Chris Farris and I were reviewing the awards for (the mission), it was clear to me that every Nightstalker who volunteered for this mission and who fought through the crucible of that night warranted either the DFC or the Air Medal of V," Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, said. "On September 8, 2009 there was no doubt that uncommon valor was a common virtue for the men (on the helicopters)."

McRaven, the task force commander during the mission, approved the operation, which required the 4th Battalion to transport a ground force into hostile territory and bring back a high-priority target. Little was known about the target or the degree of enemy threat, but they were aware that time was of the essence.

"This was way, way quicker of a mission than we're used to executing," Peterson, one of the pilots, said. "I mean, from flash to bang we were in the helicopters in less than an hour, ready to go."
After quickly looking at feeds with the ground force commander and taking measurements to make sure all three helicopters could land in the area, Litaker, the flight lead, briefed the crews on the ramp. Then they were off.

"The priority that our higher headquarters assigned to (the mission), and the sensitivity of it, meant that we had to go now ... So we went," Peterson said.

McRaven was listening to the mission over the radio as it became clear that an early warning network had let the enemy know the assault force was coming. The crews started taking rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire more than five miles from their objective, with two RPGs passing just between the helicopters.

McRaven estimated that there were more than 54 RPGs fired at the Chinooks on their inbound and outbound flights.

The sheer amount of firepower in the objective area was staggering, Litaker said.

"There's no doubt that it was a helicopter ambush that was set up on and around that area, just waiting to try to knock one of us down that night," he said.

The nature of the mission required the crews to get the ground force dangerously close to the target, and the gunners took over as the pilots maneuvered their way to the ground. Firing on enemy positions and calling out threats, they also talked the helicopters into and out of the landing zone.

The assault force moved out of the aircraft and into nearby buildings and the Chinooks lifted off, still under heavy direct fire.

"We came out of it after the infil, it was like, 'Holy cow, I can't believe we made it out of there alive,'" Litaker said. "And then, with the realization of, 'Hey, we put them in, now we've got to get them back out.'"

The exfiltration came faster than anyone could have predicted. Before the crews had even reached their waiting location they were called back for a medical evacuation. While Litaker quickly adjusted the plan for their return, they received word that the ground force had located the targeted individual and needed to be picked up.

"The ground force was still taking heavy, heavy fire, and we could hear it in the radios and in their tone of voice and everything ... So when they called us, I don't think there was a question in any of our minds that we probably weren't going to make it out," Peterson said.

The astounding thing was that they did.

In less than three and a half hours the assault force had successfully completed its mission and returned to base.

At the ceremony, McRaven praised both the pilots and the gunners.

"In what was unquestionable heroic flying, but more importantly, incredibly skillful flying, all three crews set the helos down in an opposed landing zone ... That night the actions of all three crews not only contributed to the successful mission, but without a doubt saved the lives of every (ground force) Soldier, and every member of their own crews," he said.

Peterson and Litaker said they were honored by the award, but at least as pleased for their gunners to be recognized for the work they did every night in Afghanistan.

It's a mission that will stick with them forever.

"I will say there were some, for me and Todd both, some skeletons in the closet after this one, with the amount of firepower and stuff that we had to deal with afterwards," Litaker said. "But we're here, we're better, and we're ready to get it back on again."

"Every time we relive this mission, you know, I get a little choked up because we're all family, because we all lived through it," Peterson said. "So it humbles me to serve with these guys on a daily basis, and I'm just glad they were able to get recognized."

The 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is expected to deploy again soon.

Marisa Petrich: marisa.petrich@nwguardian.com