F-15E pilots protect ground forces in massive firefight
by Staff Sgt. Shawn J. Jones
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
3/10/2009 - SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Ten Soldiers who earned Silver Stars and an Airman who will receive an Air Force Cross March 10 might not be alive today if it were not for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Airmen providing crucial close-air support during an assault on an insurgent stronghold in Afghanistan's Shok Valley last year.
A 130-man assault force of American and Afghan soldiers was flown into the valley by CH-47 Chinook helicopters April 6, 2008, with a mission to capture a top insurgent target who had been funding the insurgency.
As the assault force assembled near a riverbed in the valley's rocky terrain, two 335th Fighter Squadron F-15E Strike Eagles soared above, providing cover and hunting for potential threats from the insurgents' mountainside village stronghold.
Captain Prichard Keely, a weapons system officer from the 335th FS here, maintained constant communication with the assault force on the ground as they moved upriver and tried to assess how they would enter the stronghold.
Using the F-15E's high-fidelity targeting pods, he could see the insurgents preparing to attack.
"I could see people with weapons moving around on top of the houses," Captain Keely said.
The view provided by the F-15E's targeting pod and vantage point was useful for more than just identifying threats.
"They asked me to get them the best route of ingress from the riverbed to the village itself," he said. "I chose the terrain that was least exposed to enemy gunfire and the easiest point of ingress, while avoiding the most mountain climbing."
A small group broke off from the main assault force and proceeded along the suggested route. They made it up a few of the mountain's terraces, when he saw a muzzle flash at a village window followed by one from the small group on the terrace, the captain said.
A firefight erupted with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades screaming down from the stronghold at the group on the terrace and the main assault force still in the valley.
Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, a joint terminal air controller, was on the terrace. As a JTAC and combat controller, his duty is to work alongside the assault force and coordinate airstrikes from the ground. As his group was pinned down by enemy gunfire, Sergeant Rhyner called upon airpower to buy the team some time to finish the objective and return the injured to safety.
Sergeant Rhyner requested airstrikes that are considered danger-close, which means the small team of Soldiers on the terrace was not a safe distance away from the target area and could possibly get hurt.
At that point, the captain said, "It just got very real."
Additionally, while the main assault force was just within the safe zone of the danger-close airstrikes, they were positioned below the target area, which means falling rock and other debris would become a significant hazard.
Releasing ordnance that could harm American servicemembers and allied Afghanis presented a moral challenge for Captain Keely.
"It was pretty overwhelming, but you just take a deep breath and do exactly what you are trained to do," he said. "We knew it needed to happen, and we knew it was one of the only ways they were going to make it out of there."
Fighter jets weren't the only aircraft providing close-air support. While Sergeant Rhyner coordinated airstrikes with the F-15Es, Staff Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, another Air Force JTAC with the main assault force, called in airstrikes from Army AH-64 Apache helicopters. After nearly an hour of fighting, two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs also arrived. Captain Keely said communication between the various aircraft and between the air and ground forces was executed well, which significantly contributed to the mission.
"It was a fully integrated Army-Air Force joint-air attack team," he said.
Combined firepower from the assault force and the aircraft allowed the terrace team to return to the main assault force, though several had been hit by enemy gunfire.
"It was pretty intense," he said. "It was one of the most intense things I have ever experienced, knowing that those guys are getting shot at and knowing there are only a couple of things I can do to try to help them."
Captain Keely, his pilot, Maj. James Scheideman of the 335th FS, and their wingman remained in the fight for three hours, receiving in-air refueling twice, before being relieved by two other F-15E aircrews. While the peak of the fight had passed, it was difficult for the captain to leave before it was truly over.
"We had run out of gas, and we had run out of munitions," he said. "You just wish there was one more thing you could do to keep those guys safe."
By the end of the fight, between 150 and 200 insurgents were killed, according to reports. Numerous American and Afghan ground forces were injured and two Afghanis were killed, but without airpower and the aircrew putting needed bombs on target, there could have been countless more.
While Captain Keely said he was most impressed by the heroism of the ground forces that day in Shok Valley, he acknowledges the results would have been much different had airpower not delivered.
"I think there would have been significantly more losses," he said.
Sergeant Rhyner echoed the captain's sentiments.
"I think the situation would have been a lot worse had we not had airpower," Sergeant Rhyner said.
The captain said the F-15E performed admirably. The multirole fighter jet was designed to excel in fighting environments like Shok Valley. Its ability to carry more ordnance than any other fighter jet combined with its large fuel capacity make the F-15E an ideal weapon for the prolonged close-air-support mission.
Having two crewmembers also offers significant advantages over single-seat fighter jets.
"Task management is really a huge advantage," he said.
The pilot can concentrate on flying, while the weapons systems officer can communicate with ground forces and other aircraft, or both can communicate simultaneously. The captain said splitting task management was particularly useful when his F-15E required an in-air refuel during the fight.
"I can stay in combat mode while the pilot can concentrate on getting to the tanker, receiving fuel and getting back on station," he said.
Captain Keely deferred most of the praise from Shok Valley to the ground forces that were in danger and the fighter jet he operates. He remains humble about his personal contributions.
"It makes me want to do more," he said. "In our position, we can make a significant difference in the lives of people in the Army and the people of Afghanistan."
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