Courage under fire: Misawa EOD tech diffuses a deadly encounter
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Upon arriving at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak for his fourth deployment in May 2014, the arid Afghan desert heat and blinding dunes of sand struck a nostalgic chord with U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kristopher Parker - the golden wasteland in front of him reminded him of his own backyard.
"To me it looked like home because the terrain is the same as southeast New Mexico," mused Parker. "I always felt comfortable being there."
As a Carlsbad native, he grew up in the southwestern corner of the United States. The son of a Marine, he came from a military background and spent his childhood filled with outdoor activities, namely shooting everything that moved with a pellet gun.
Parker eventually traded his pellet gun in for an M-4 when he joined the Air Force in 2003 as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.
Throughout his career, Parker deployed to locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan and diffused countless improvised explosive devices, but his most recent deployment to the Kandahar region would prove to be his most storied and dangerous.
"Our mission was expected to be pretty standard," Parker said. "Honestly, I was most excited to have my teammates receive real-world EOD experience so I could send them home as well-rounded Airmen."
The opportunity presented itself with a mission to provide enemy suppression while descending into the Mazghary Mountain range and clear a factory that was believed to produce IEDs. He was partnered with members from different branches of service and fellow Air Force EOD Senior Airmen T.J. Brantley and Kyle Bushey, and Joint Terminal Attack Controller, Staff Sgt. Nicolas Strickler.
"Before this deployment I had never met my two teammates," said Brantley. "But I knew no matter what we encountered I had a team leader, Parker, who would do everything he could to keep me alive."
His gut instincts were right, and soon he'd rely on Parker more than he could have imagined.
Brantley and Bushey were both inexperienced when it came to being deployed and dealing with real-combat. Prior to the mission, the two jokingly told Parker they "hoped to see some action."
Parker was wiser and knew differently.
"I told them they didn't want the action," said Parker. "But they certainly got their wishes and then some."
Rendezvousing with Afghanistan Border Police, Parker and his team mounted a chinook helicopter before dawn, en-route to the mountain they would unwillingly call home for the next 15 hours.
Located approximately 500 meters away on a ridge was Edward Newton, a Joint IED Defeat Organization team member. During this operation, he was to observe and report any potential IEDs to Parker and his team.
"There was high ground on both sides of the approaching team," said Newton. "The ridge had enemy fighters in advantageous positions -- Parker and his team were walking into a group of insurgents."
As they descended the mountain, Parker's ABP comrades unexpectedly encountered enemy combatants who were holed up within the entrance of a cave.
The shout of an interpreter from the platoon rang out and immediately the platoon came under heavy gun fire.
"Our entire team was getting shot at, with rounds falling within a foot of us," said Bushey. "We were able to return effective fire, using one magazine per-person to suppress the remaining enemy combatants."
Fragments of rock splintered off the boulders they used for cover in front of them creating a curtain of dust, obscuring the battlefield for both parties.
With Brantley and Bushey pinned down taking fire by the combatants, Strickler was ordered to call in an aerial weapons team to help neutralize the threat.
Directed verbally or electronically, an aerial weapons team operates within a helicopter armed with munitions like rockets, missiles and automatic machine guns. They respond to JTAC coordinates in order to quickly find and eliminate their target.
Within minutes, the AWT descended upon the cave and unleashed their arsenal of rockets and hellfire missiles, suppressing the enemy and giving Parker's team a chance to recover from the engagement.
After the two-hour-long skirmish, the platoon and Afghan allies returned to the cave to assess the damage. Along with enemy casualties, the team uncovered an extremely large cache of IEDs and homemade explosives within the cave's vicinity.
The work wasn't done yet, and the ABP requested Parker's support in disarming the IEDs and clearing the area for the platoon. No rookie to the art of IED destruction, Parker masterfully identified and cleared the surrounding area with haste.
"The IEDs I encountered in Afghanistan were more complex and built differently than in previous deployments," Parker said. "Past experiences and a lot of training played a large role in our survival and my ability to clear the IEDs."
With over 200 pounds of homemade explosives and IEDs to destroy, Parker evacuated his team to a safe distance and prepared his charges for detonation. The resulting explosion shook the earth and signaled the successful clearing of their manmade enemy.
The smell of explosives filled the air and surrounded the area with a plume of wispy, black smoke. A crater scarred the earth where the munitions had been just seconds prior.
As the smoke cleared and Parker's team was able to survey the area, U.S. Army platoon leader 1st Lt. Mathew Long arrived at the crater to warn them of a group of enemies nearby who were waiting for the group at the base of the mountain.
"We didn't make it far before our guys began taking fire," said Brantley.
It was not feasible for the team to continue on the route without running into an awaiting group of enemy combatants, along with a littered trail of IEDs.
Parker offered an alternative solution to their potential problem - utilizing various Joint Direct Attack Munitions to vaporize the awaiting assailants who were waiting at the bottom.
Bushey, who was suffering from heat exhaustion, made his way back up the mountain and postured himself in a sniping position.
JDAMs are bombs outfitted with a GPS-assisted guidance system and range from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds in weight. Coupled with its ability to alter trajectory, these munitions will track their target with laser precision.
"We had an abundance of JDAMs, but they were ineffective at damaging the cave structure," said Parker. "I recommended to Strickler to have the pilots drop JDAMs and to put a delay on the fuse to ensure it would penetrate before detonating."
The tactic worked, and after the last JDAM was dropped, the men headed back down the mountain - sure of their clearing.
"I suggested we head to the cave opening using a different route," Parker said. "We approached from the east side of the overhang, and used the available boulders as cover until we arrived at the mouth of the cave."
It wasn't more than 20 minutes after their bombardment of the cliff that Parker's team came under fire once again. This time, it was more furious and focused than before.
With an unknown amount of enemy combatants barraging the team with a combination of small-arms fire and AK-47 rifle rounds, Long, attempting to find cover, received a gunshot wound to the leg, instantly breaking his bone.
"We saw him drop to the ground and pull himself up prior to the enemies firing two rocket-propelled grenades," said Brantley. "They detonated when they hit the edge of our cover boulder, six feet from us. Long's face received flak from the RPG's, but he managed to get back behind cover."
Parker established a firing position and engaged in direct enemy fire, allowing Brantley time to come to Long's aid.
White-hot bullet casings littered the floor around him as he defended the men's position.
Parker yelled for Long to start wrapping a tourniquet around his leg to stem the bleeding and Brantley started performing combat life-saving maneuvers on him in addition to getting him out of harm's way.
Insurgents began unloading a focused strike of RPG fire and were close enough to throw 20- pound IEDs at the U.S. Force's location, resulting in Parker and Brantley being blown back, receiving concussions.
Parker made a plan to take Army Sgt. Joshua Grover and perform cover fire, directing enemy fire towards them, so Brantley and Long could egress to safety.
"Parker and I knew we had to get out of there, so we told Long to roll as fast as he could down the hill away from the cliff," said Grover. "We laid suppressive fire until he and Brantley made it down the mountain."
With Parker's radio communications lost, another member of his platoon called in an AWT to neutralize the onslaught of the insurgents.
He was told they were too close to the enemy to begin suppression tactics and by now, Long had been wounded for over an hour; Parker needed to get his men out of there quickly.
"The safety of my team, along with making sure I deactivated any IEDs standing in our way was my priority during that time," said Parker. "I was not willing to accept that we might not make it out of this."
Continuing to provide cover fire, Parker also engaged in clearing the route of IEDs for his team, as the sounds of an approaching helicopter echoed into range.
"Parker fought the enemy with tenacity and controlled demeanor," said Newton. "He was in the beaten zone, bullets flying around him and missing him by inches, RPGs exploding next to him and IEDs being thrown at him."
Without the suppression from Parker and Grover, they likely would have been killed.
"I have never seen such a close fight with so many weapon systems oriented on one element at such a range with no one getting killed," said Newton.
Still suppressing the enemy, Parker heard the familiar "pop" of a bomb being ejected out of a bomb rack and a whistling sound as it plummeted to the ground near the platoon's vicinity.
"Unknown to us, close air support had come on station and dropped a 500-pound JDAM onto the cave," Parker said. "I yelled to the guys to take cover and pulled a Soldier out of the open just before fragments and shrapnel flew past where he had been laying on the ground."
Long's tourniquet had failed; he had been wounded and bleeding for three hours and was fading in and out of consciousness. His brothers-in-arms quickly redressed his wounds and applied another tourniquet to arrest the bleeding.
A small unit had arrived at their location and turned the tide of battle between Parker's platoon and the insurgents by providing suppressive fire, more JDAMs and a salvo of hellfire missiles.
The sounds of rotors chopping the parched desert air broke the tension of the firefight and also heralded their rescue.
Parker and Brantley loaded Long onto the awaiting helicopter to be transferred to a medical facility.
After the landing zone had been cleared of any surrounding insurgents, Parker and the rest of his team rendezvoused with Bushey, who had been embroiled in a sniping engagement for the last five hours.
After nearly 20 hours spent in the mountain range, the operation ended with 18 dead insurgents and over 200 pounds of homemade explosives destroyed and cleared.
As Parker and his team boarded the helicopter and ascended into the night sky, the familiar dunes of his backyard appeared on the horizon. Exhausted, the landscape didn't really feel like home anymore, but he took pride in knowing his team made it home alive.