MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan (Army News Service, Feb. 27, 2008) - When a helicopter carrying three senior U.S. senators was forced to make an emergency landing Feb. 23 in the mountains of Afghanistan due to blizzard conditions, Soldiers of the Arizona National Guard's 1st Battalion, 158th Infantry responded.
The rescue team made a treacherous cross-country journey from Bagram Airfield to secure the site and evacuate Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
In less than an hour after receiving notice of the downed aircraft, the platoon made the trek to their rendezvous point.
"The weather was our biggest adversary," said 1st Lt. Dennis Chamberlain who led the D Company platoon and other servicemembers of Combined Joint Task Force-82.
"We moved out slow and methodically," Chamberlain said. "If we had crashed or had a problem with our convoy, it would have delayed our response time even more. 'Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,' is a saying in the infantry and this mission was no different than any other."
Chamberlain's men were no strangers to adversity. Since arriving in Afghanistan 11 months ago, the platoon has been in more than 100 enemy engagements, primarily in Tag Ab valley, Kapisa Province, from where they had just recently returned after conducting numerous missions.
The unit was just beginning to enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere at Bagram, where they are attached to CJTF-82, when they received the order to move again. Initially, the Soldiers were unaware of the VIP passengers on the helicopters.
Army Staff Sgt. Chris Dempsey of Yuma, Ariz., who was conducting inventories in the platoon office when the call came, was concerned about the pilots and crews.
"They had so many times come to our aid when we were pinned down by enemy fire. Now it was time to return the favor," Dempsey said.
When the platoon arrived at the site, one squad immediately convoyed the senators back to base while the rest of the platoon endured the bitter winds, freezing rain and snow for more than 15 hours through the night. They secured the helicopters and crews until relief could arrive the following day, said Army Sgt. Brian Genthe of Chandler, Ariz.
"We brought out cold weather gear," said Spc. Albert Jurado of Glendale, Ariz.
Due to the weather and limited visibility, finding a route to the downed aircraft proved to be tough, but Army Staff Sgt. William McClain of Peoria, Ariz., led the way.
"With only a grid to go by he led us," Dempsey said. "As the snow fell to the point where you could barely see the vehicle in front of you he stayed on course. When the road turned into no more than a trail he plowed through. As other vehicles fell to the wayside he kept going and when the trail ended he was the one who walked the rest of the way to the downed crews."
McClain's perseverance and guidance paid off, resulting in another successful mission by D Co., 1st Bn., 158th Inf. Reg., Arizona National Guard.
"Of all the units they could have sent out on that awful night, the Guard was the one that went," Dempsey added.
(Maj. John Bozicevic serves with the Arizona National Guard.)