Moments of heroism backed up by less dramatic moments

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- It was January 24, 2008. Hawg 13 flight, a formation of two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, launched from the safety of Bagram Air Base into the overcast darkness of a crisp winter night in northeast Afghanistan. More than 115 miles to the east, a friendly armored convoy slowly made its way through the forbidding expanse of land near the Pakistan border. 

As Hawg 13 checked on station, one pilot noted that mountains filled the scenery with snow capped peaks collapsing down steep ridge lines into the valley below. Through his night vision goggles, one of the pilots could see the convoy proceeding southeast along a ridge line in one of the world's most treacherous landscapes. Clouds swallowed the mountain tops as they blanketed the area, reducing visibility for the two pilots. 

Within minutes, Hawg 13 observed tracers from enemy machine guns streak across the river that ran alongside the convoy, appearing as bright green streaks of light under one of the pilot's night vision goggles. Under the direction of the ground controller, Hawg 13 flight proceeded to fire hundreds of explosive 30mm rounds, each time slightly closer to the convoy than the previous pass, concluding in deadly fire that hit just 300 feet from the distressed convoy. 

An eerie silence fell over the battlefield as the convoy's soldiers dismounted their vehicles and proceeded on foot to cross the river. Hawg 13 continued to make low passes in an attempt to deter the hidden enemy. Suddenly, with a hailstorm of bullets, insurgent fighters ambushed the ground forces from multiple locations across the river. The ground controller shouted for immediate air support, indicating enemy fighters were now nearly co-located with the friendly forces. 

The stars had since begun to fade and the eastern horizon lazily transitioned to purple, creating one of the most difficult situations an attack pilot can experience. The dawn's glow rendered the pilots' night-vision goggles unusable while providing insufficient light for the naked eye to distinguish detail, occurring at the precise moment Hawg 13 needed the ability to discern friend from foe. 

"Hawg 13, cleared hot!" called the ground controller, approving Hawg 13 to let loose their 30mm Gatling guns. The A-10 pilots surgically struck enemy positions a mere 50 to 60 feet from the coalition force convoy. From his cockpit, one Hawg 13 pilot could see the stream of bullets pour out of his jet as he held down the trigger more than a mile from the intended targets. Pass after pass, pinpoint accuracy gradually silenced the enemy fire. By 6 a.m., approximately 90 minutes after the first engagement, the battle was over. 

Unsung heroes deserving of recognition 
Too seldom we stop to reflect on the impact of months and even years of hard work and preparation. But in the case of Hawg 13 flight, I'm not speaking only of the preparation of the two attack pilots that, in a moment of extraordinary circumstances, saved the lives of distressed friendly forces. I'm speaking of the preparation and hard work of countless other Airmen who transform them into heroes the instant havoc unfolds. 

In the case of Hawg 13, a myriad of unsung heroes were called upon well before the pilots engaged the enemy: the maintainer who meticulously prepared and inspected the A-10s just hours before takeoff; the weapons loader who carefully loaded ammunition into each plane; the loggy who laboriously ensured the transport of all the materials required for a squadron to forward deploy; the comptroller with pinpoint attention to detail who ensured the deployment was adequately funded; and the medical technician who sees to the health and readiness of every war fighter. 

The list of vital Airmen goes on and on. A-10 pilots' training is the result of a hefty tax-dollar investment, countless hours of practice, late nights of debriefing, missed meals or lost time with family; yet, they are no more than well-trained pilots in flight suits if not for a similar sacrifice by their fellow Airmen. 

Take a minute to reflect on your job. What is your unit's mission? What are your responsibilities? What do you bring to the fight? 

Our current chief of staff echoed the refrain of his predecessors, saying, "the enduring responsibility of the United States Air Force is to ... fly, fight and win ... " When some think of this, they mistakenly believe it refers solely to the pointy end of the Saber, the operators executing the mission. I would offer that it better applies to the Air Force -- any of its units -- working together as a team to accomplish a mission that cannot fail. That charge cannot be achieved without the enduring expertise and preparation of the service's members. 

We are not in the business of making a profit or selling a novel product. We are in the business of protecting national interests and saving the lives of our brothers and sisters in combat. With that comes extreme responsibility. 

As a result, be the expert at whatever it is you do. Be the one person whom others think of when they need help in your career field. If you are not one of those people yet, find that person in your unit and learn from them. Above all, hold yourself accountable for what occurs or does not occur within your scope of responsibility. 

The next time you're completing required training or accomplishing a seemingly menial task, remember that as an Airman you are the stuff that heroes are made of. For every moment of heroism that takes place on the battlefield, there are a million other less dramatic, but equally important, moments that must take place before it.