CAMP TAJI, Iraq - Set up in five trucks with heavy machine guns, enemy forces sat in wait for a helicopter to fly over their location west of Baghdad on the last day of May.
It appeared their plan was to strike a blow to Multi-National Division-Baghdad by taking down a U.S. Army helicopter.
The enemy forces were trained and prepared with personnel to drive the trucks, man the guns and keep a lookout for any of the U.S. helicopters that patrol the skies of Baghdad in search of roadside bomb emplacers or insurgent mortar teams.
The 1st Air Cavalry Brigade's Apache crews had become a thorn in the insurgency's side by regularly disrupting terrorist attacks on Coalition Forces and Iraqi civilians.
As they waited, four Apache pilots from 1st "Attack" Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st ACB, 1st Cavalry Division, were getting an intelligence briefing before heading out on their mission. The intelligence indicated that there were up to 30 gun trucks in a specific area, and the pilots' mission was to check it out.
With both determination and caution, 1st Lt. Brian Haas, chief warrant officers 4 Steven Kilgore and Elliott Ham and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Cole Moughon took to the skies to check the validity of the report.
All four said they thought from the onset that some sort of engagement was imminent. They expected to find at least several trucks with gun mounts that could easily be modified to attack air and ground assets.
The two Apache crews, each with a pilot in command and a copilot-gunner, came up on a truck and sedan that stopped suddenly; the occupants quickly exited the vehicles and low crawled toward a ditch. The crews didn't know if this meant the people were being cautious, preparing for a possible engagement by taking cover, or if they knew that an engagement was imminent.
"That instantly heightened our awareness; something is going on out here," said Kilgore, a Portage, Ind., native. "These people aren't just scared of us. They may be a little bit, to an extent, but there's something going on out here. We started keeping an eye open."
It didn't take long for their suspicions to be confirmed.
"I remember ... thinking this is weird; something's up," said Moughon, from Gray, Ga. "We (in the lead aircraft) heard (Kilgore) make the call over the radio: "Hey, I'm taking fire at my rear." We heard (Haas) say there was a big gun. I looked over to my right, and I was about to say: "Oh, I got it." I just got out "oh." I could see the flash from the muzzle. I saw a stitch of dirt in the road coming up towards us."
It was even worse than the intelligence report had predicted; the trucks had more than just weapon mounts.
"We were looking for trucks with mounts - not trucks with heavy machine guns looking to kill us," Moughon said. "At that point, it was pretty scary, because I knew - back in February, we lost an aircraft to heavy machine gun fire - we knew what the deal was right away. We knew that we were in something pretty dangerous."
Kilgore spotted a gun truck about one-and-a-half kilometers away shooting at the helicopters, but there was a much more ominous threat.
"We started taking fire from my right side about 1,500 meters away," Kilgore said. "What I didn't know is there was another gun about 300 meters away in the same line that started shooting at the same time. That rattled the aircraft. It didn't hit ... but rattled the aircraft."
A seasoned Apache pilot with multiple deployments under his belt, Kilgore initially thought his aircraft had been hit.
"We were so close to the gun that when the aircraft started to rattle, I thought I was taking hits," Kilgore said. "I actually saw muzzle flashes from it. It was about 250 to 300 meters out my right door."
Within a couple of minutes, the Apache crews had gone from searching for the gun trucks to becoming the targets of a planned ambush by the enemy forces.
"I was definitely at a position of a disadvantage, and I needed to gain an advantage," Kilgore said. "That meant ... moving out away from that (gun truck) to get out of his ability to track me. I was able to put a salvo of (rockets) on that gun truck and clear that gun truck. We came back later and destroyed the gun truck."
Both aircrews broke contact safely, and then came back in to engage the trucks and insurgents.
The trail aircraft had disabled one of the trucks, and Moughon and Ham in the lead aircraft took out another one on the second pass.
"They broke off that truck, and we followed them out and then came back in. (Ham) called and said he had trucks fleeing to the north," said Haas, from Ashley, N.D. "They came around and engaged there. We came in behind them and just kind of suppressed again as they were breaking. They shot another missile. I think we made two more passes."
With nearly half of the gun trucks already disabled, the aircrews were not about to let some of them get away to launch an ambush on another aircraft.
"I saw three trucks with machine guns in the back in kind of like a straight trail formation hauling ... down the road," Moughon said. "As soon as I got the sight on them, I launched the missile. I saw the guy swing his gun around and just a bright flash of the gun firing. The (driver) braked. The missile hit right in front of the truck and didn't do anything. We broke, I think (the trail aircraft) suppressed, then we came back around and fired another missile.
"(It was) the same thing; the guy knew what he was doing. He slammed on the brakes, but this time it killed the driver. That caused him to careen into his buddy and pushed him off the road. We further engaged with the (30mm) gun and got several guys that were running away. We just started (destroying the weapon systems) from there."
The seemingly determined enemy forces had blinked and tried, without success, to flee.
"Once they knew that we weren't going to run away from them, that's when we got the advantage and just got real aggressive," Haas said. "I think that helped us, because we got noise and rockets flying off the helicopter, and they saw that and they knew they were in for it."
A couple of days later, with plenty of time to reflect on the engagement, the pilots realized there were some things they could have done differently.
"In this situation, you're going to make mistakes," Moughon said. "It's not like (training) back at Fort Hood where we've got time. Everything was heat of the moment. You had to get rounds out. It was all a matter of who made fewer mistakes - whether or not you were going to be going home. Obviously, we made fewer mistakes than the enemy."
While that may have been true about their actions during the 15 intense minutes that the engagement lasted, the Apache crews were simply more prepared, thanks to a whole team of Soldiers from the 1st ACB who provided support back at home base, Kilgore said.
He explained that the information on the gun trucks from the brigade's intelligence report, the operational briefing from the brigade operations staff and the aircraft maintenance and armament personnel all contributed to the mission's success.
"All of that led to us being successful in this engagement," Kilgore said. "Yes, we were the executors - the four of us - but, there is a big picture here that goes into everything we do. It's really the Army aviation team that led to this win, this success. I think we can all take pride in that. We, 1ACB Army aviation, defeated the enemy. We did it pretty much by ourselves as aviation. We didn't have ground forces with us. We didn't use artillery.
"We can see that teamwork that went into it - across the board teamwork - we can see that tenacity that is being exhibited every day by these guys. I think it's something we can all take pride in. This was a big win for the whole team."
For their quick and heroic actions in the chaotic scene on May 31, the pilots were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses - the top aviation-specific military award. The awards were presented Oct. 28 by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, Multi-National Corps-Iraq commanding general.
"I've been an aviator my whole career, and I've always wanted to be an aviator, since I was a little kid," Kilgore said. "The Distinguished Flying Cross ... is a special award. For me to be included in that group that has received the Distinguished Flying Cross - it feels a little humbling. There have been a lot of great aviators who have received the Distinguished Flying Cross and great aviators who haven't received the Distinguished Flying Cross. How do I match up to that' I don't know; maybe it's a one fight thing, and it was something special enough that someone took notice and thought that we deserved the Distinguished Flying Cross for it."
For Moughon, it still hasn't sunk in that he earned the prestigious medal.
"When I got to the unit, my commander (for Company B, 1-227th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion) had gotten a DFC for acts in OIF II. I got to looking at it, because I wanted to know what it was," Moughon said. "Then, I realized who all had got it before him. When somebody mentioned that we might get it, I thought: 'I am not in their company.' I'm just two years out of flight school. I was just trying to stay alive. Receiving the award was a very humbling experience and almost embarrassing. There are guys out here that do just as much every day - sacrifice every day to go out there and find the enemy and kill them. They don't get recognized for it."
While the pilots couldn't pin down what made their actions heroic, perhaps how they approached the engagement itself is telling as to why they received Distinguished Flying Crosses. In the initial moments of the engagement, with bullets and tracers flying past their aircraft like something out of "Star Wars" - as Moughon said - and with the Apaches outnumbered nearly three to one by gun trucks on the ground, the pilots never even considered high-tailing it to safety.
"I can't say that I thought: 'We should get out of here.'" Haas said. "I don't know why, but it never crossed my mind. Maybe that's just the way we are. I didn't come here to say: 'Yep, there's bad guys out there. I'm not going out there.' I came over here to - I'm not going to be naAfA-ve and say to make a difference - but I came over here to do my job and do it to the best of my ability. There's a lot of the guys that I've flown with before, and they're the same way. The hard part is finding (the enemy). We fly around Baghdad where there are millions of people and they all look the same; unless somebody is shooting at you, you don't know. When they shoot at you first, that makes it easy."
"The initial contact was scary, and you thought about - yeah, this was a big deal," Moughon added. "At that point, it was like they say in the westerns: 'If you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound.' We were in it, so we had no choice. If we had just flown away, they probably would have been there to take somebody else down. We're a gunship; that's what we do. We don't get low and suppress and run. We stay and fight. Our job is to go out, find the enemy and kill them. That's what we do."