Aaron Cruz knew he was being shot at.
“I could see rounds kicking up in front of the helicopter, just in the dirt.”
He also knew injured U.S. and Afghan soldiers were counting on him. Cruz is an Army aeromedical evacuation pilot.
“The point of medevac is get there as fast and safe as you can, get on the ground in as short an amount of time as possible, get the wounded people and get out.” That’s what he was trying to do during an operation in Kunduz, Afghanistan, as part of a Black Hawk crew with the call sign DUSTOFF 62.
There are some details Cruz vividly remembers.
There are some things that are lost in the chaotic haze of the event, which started the night of Nov. 2, 2016, and lasted until the morning of Nov. 3. What’s certain is that he and three other crewmates were awarded an Air Medal with “V” device for Valor.
A U.S. Forces-Afghanistan video captured the awards ceremony, held March 4 at Bagram Airfield.
“The award itself is significant,” Lt. Col. Jacob J. Dlugosz, battalion commander, said in the video. “To be recognized for valor, heroic action — it’s an award that doesn’t happen very often.”
Cruz’s humble reaction when asked about the medal: “We have to talk about that?”
Yes, since the official Army narrative that accompanies his award tell us “First Lieutenant Cruz’s actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service.”
Jumping into action
The night started with soldiers around a campfire.
The medevac crews were on “standby and wait,” Cruz said. “We’re always prepared, but to hopefully not do anything. Because if we have to get called out, it’s a bad day for everybody involved. Unfortunately, we did get called that night.”
Captain Trevor Joseph came in with the news. “We know there’s multiple injuries,” Cruz said.
Two medevac teams — DUSTOFF 62 and 66 — were readied. 66 was the lead; 62, piloted by Cruz, was originally meant to be a secondary. For nearly an hour and a half they waited, monitoring radio traffic, for approval to launch.
“We figured out the reason we’re waiting,” Cruz said. The people they needed to rescue couldn’t go anywhere due to intense enemy presence, and there wasn’t a suitable landing area for a helicopter.
In the meantime, the engines of both helicopters were running. They would need to refuel — but 66 had complications that delayed refueling. That’s when the call came in: “Launch approval.”
Both helicopters took off.
Taking the lead
The next order Cruz received was to stay in a holding pattern about three miles from the expected landing zone. Ground forces had relayed that the area was under heavy enemy fire.
“We orbited for 30 to 45 minutes,” he said, long enough that 66 became “fuel-critical” and had to return to camp. Cruz’s helicopter became the lead, and another DUSTOFF crew, 67, was called in.
“We just kept orbiting in the sky. I’m on the controls the whole time. Anytime we’d turn, I think to the northeast, we could see the sky lighting up with fire.” Cruz said.
Apache helicopters were in the fight, trying to provide a safe passage for the medevac teams. But then, more news: the landing zone was too small for two helicopters. Only one crew would take out the wounded.
“We got the call to land.”
As the Army narrative puts it, “DUSTOFF 62 immediately departed their orbit and flew directly to the (pickup zone) utilizing the maximum aircraft power available.” They were going straight into the fight.
Coming under fire
During their approach, an Army aircraft marked the ground with a light to show the crew the correct helicopter landing zone. But there was a problem: The friendly ground forces were not in that location now.
The crew located the forces about 500 meters away, and made a nonstandard landing. They ended up within 10 meters of the wounded. They found a chaotic scene.
“We come down, the dust clears and there’s a wall of people at my door,” Cruz said.
The crew and Special Forces soldiers had to forcibly remove some unwounded Afghan soldiers who mistook DUSTOFF 62 as a general extraction helicopter sent to remove them from the area.
“We start seeing traces of fire coming in. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. Like: I’m getting shot at?!”
He was, from two sites: a building and a tree line.
By now, the JTAC — a service member who directs the actions of combat aircraft — had advised DUSTOFF 62 to depart. Twice.
They chose to stay.
“1LT Cruz remained calm,” the Army narrative tells us, “as he continued to call out observed enemy locations and relay orders to the other crew members.”
Cruz said Captain Joseph told them: “Take as many injured people as we can.”
Then, Cruz said, “we take off, and I’m on the controls again. I don’t know if you’ve seen machine gun fire, but sometimes you can see the individual bullets coming
at you in a straight line. In a beam of light as the helicopter was coming up, I can see that line. It’s right underneath our rotor disk.”
All this time, the medic on board the helicopter was working on patients.
“As fast as we can, we get back to the medical facility at Camp Pamir.”
The helicopter landed as day was breaking. The Army narrative said the crew delivered seven patients to safety.
Reflecting on good, bad
DUSTOFF 62 was under fire for at least two full minutes.
The Army credits evasive actions by the team, including Cruz, for avoiding being shot. The helicopter, amazingly, had no discernible battle damage. After Cruz’s team left, Special Forces extracted the remaining unwounded soldiers.
However, two U.S. and two Afghan soldiers lost their lives that night.
That’s why earning this medal gave Cruz mixed feelings.
“It filled me with pride for my unit, my company and the DUSTOFF organization as a whole. But it’s also something you don’t really want an award for. Some people we were not able to save. That was as bad as it got for us.”
Thinking of the future
Cruz doesn’t know when or if he might deploy again. He’s now at Fort Riley in Kansas, but scheduled to move for a new assignment in 2018. That might change: He is applying to the Army’s physical therapy program and will know if he was accepted in spring.
He job-shadowed physical therapists for his program at MSU, and considered Army training for physical therapy before he was accepted at flight school. Now, he wants to reconnect with that passion.
“At MSU, I loved my major and really enjoyed going to class. I love learning. I love anatomy.”
Whether on the battlefield or in a wellness capacity, there’s a common theme of Cruz’s personality: “I love helping people.”
Aaron Cruz Bio
- MSU degree: Bachelor’s in exercise and movement science with a minor in military science, 2013; Army ROTC participant
- Family: Wife Brittany (an MSU attendee), son Kace, 4, and daughter Paisley, almost 2; Aaron’s older brother, Anthony Cruz, is also an MSU graduate
- Service in United States Army: First reported for duty Aug. 25, 2013, to Fort Sam Houston in Texas; next to Fort Rucker in Alabama for flight school; next to Fort Riley in Kansas
- Deployment: July 2016 to April 2017, Afghanistan
- Rank: First lieutenant at time of interview; scheduled to become a captain in September
- Position: Platoon leader
- Job title: Aeromedical evacuation pilot
Cruz’s four medals, so far
- Three Air Medals; one with “V” device for Valor
- Air Medals are military decorations awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
- The “V” device is a metal capital letter V which is worn on military decorations to distinguish an award for heroism or valor in combat.
- Combat Action Badge: These provide special recognition to soldiers who personally engage the enemy or are engaged by the enemy during combat operations.