Kentucky Army National Guard engineers were down to their last rounds in a firefight with the Taliban and were planning to charge the enemy positions when Air Force Lt. Col. John "Crack" Roe told them to hold off as he rolled in low with his A-10 Thunderbolt.
He didn't miss on a second run, unleashing seven rockets on target within 40 meters of the Kentucky engineers, the Air Force said in a recent news release.
For his actions while serving with the 303rd Fighter Squadron in 2008, Roe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in a ceremony earlier this month at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
At the same ceremony, Maj. John "Sapper" Tice also received the DFC for his actions while serving with the 303rd in Afghanistan in 2010.
The long lead times in making the awards were due to difficulties in gathering the supporting evidence for the nominations, according to Air Force Magazine, which first reported on the awards.
At the Nov. 2 ceremony before about 200 service members, and family and friends of the two pilots, Lt. Col. Rick Mitchell, current commander of the 303rd, called the event "incredibly unique and rare."
"Very rarely is the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded," he said. "Even more rarely is the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded twice in the same day to two members of the exact same fighter squadron."
According to Tice's citation, and the Air Force release, on Dec. 2, 2010, he was flying alongside another A-10 out of Kandahar Airfield when they were assigned to back up two Army Special Forces teams on the ground. The operators were guarding Army engineers working to build a bridge in the Helmand River Valley in Afghanistan's contested southwestern Helmand province.
Tice spotted a Taliban scout scoping out the U.S. troops and immediately alerted a joint terminal attack controller on the ground. The Special Forces team took out the scout, but nearby Taliban forces then attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, and small arms fire, the release said.
"Within seconds, the fierce battle intensified," Lt. Col. Mitchell said, reading from the citation. "Without any hesitation, Tice descended into the tactical effective range of the small arms fire."
Tice made six low passes, targeting four Taliban fighting positions and firing 1,140 .30mm rounds from the A-10's cannon. At least 32 enemy fighters were killed, the release said. There were no casualties among the 75 U.S. troops on the ground.
"I'm humbled to be amongst these two," Col. Mike Schultz, the 442d Fighter Wing Commander, said, as he presented Tice and Roe with their awards. "I don't feel quite adequate for even touching the medal. It's that big of a deal. Sapper, Crack, brothers, well done."
For Roe, it was his third award of the DFC, given for "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight."
The presenter for Roe was retired Brig. Gen. James Mackey, a former 303rd A-10 pilot, who said "I'm pretty proud to be standing up here. I was [Roe's] wingman that day."
Roe's latest award was for his actions on June 5, 2008, while flying out of Bagram air base, north of Kabul, on an overwatch mission for a resupply convoy.
During the flight, he and Mackey saw four vehicles on a north-south road, and another four that had stopped further along on the same road, the release said.
There was no JTAC on the ground, so Roe used the aircraft's FM radio to contact the platoon commander. He learned that three of the first four vehicles had been hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
He asked the platoon commander to mark the enemy target area with a smoke grenade on the ridgeline above the road, but the grenade rolled back down to where the U.S. troops were, Mackey said.
"T. Roe asks, 'can you mark the target?' Next thing we hear is, 'Do not shoot that smoke.' We figured that out. A second mark goes up about two thirds up the ridgeline -- that's our target," Mackey said.
Roe then coordinated with the platoon commander to ensure the friendlies were not in harm's way. Roe declared the situation Emergency Close Air Support, assuming full responsibility for any attack and ordered everyone to go inside their vehicles.
He made his first pass with the A-10's gun, but the .30 mm rounds hit above the enemy positions, indicating a targeting elevation system error.
"He recognized right away that his system that allows him to tell what the elevation was [had a malfunction], so he manually puts in the elevation," said Mackey. "Next pass, he unloads seven rockets about 40 meters away from the friendlies and [the enemy] cease fire."
The firefight lasted about an hour, and Roe's actions contributed to saving the lives of 16 U.S. troops, the Air Force release said. Before the A-10s arrived, the U.S. troops "were down to their last clip of ammunition with plans to charge the hill."
In the audience for the awards ceremony were two of the troops who were on the ground that day when Roe rolled in with his A-10 -- Mauricio Alejandro "Musta" Arias and Joseph "Buck" Parker of the Kentucky National Guard's 201st Engineering Brigade. Both received a standing ovation.
In his closing remarks at the ceremony, Mitchell, the 303rd commander, noted that Tice and Roe "had support from the entire team" on the ground. "If you're sitting out there wondering if you make a difference-- you do."
Over the years, the Air Force has occasionally considered mothballing the A-10s, but Congress continues to fund the aircraft.
"The A-10 is an amazing aircraft, serviced by remarkable Airmen and is flown and deployed by remarkable attack pilots," Mitchell said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.