FLW helicopter crews celebrate ‘Alive Day’ of VA official Tammy Duckworth
By: Matthew J. Wilson/Missouri National Guard Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Christopher Fierce, left, of Dixon, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Milberg stand in front of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter similar to the one Tammy Duckworth was flying when she was shot down in Iraq.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Nov. 12, 2009) — Tammy Duckworth is now a major in the Army National Guard, a former Democratic Party congressional candidate, and an assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs. But on Nov. 12, 2004, Duckworth’s life was likely saved by the quick action of other National Guardsmen when she was piloting a helicopter that insurgents shot down in Iraq. Those Missouri National Guardmembers attended Duckworth’s fifth “Alive Day” Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Fierce, a Dixon resident who was also wounded that day, has celebrated Alive Days with Duckworth in the past, but was not able to attend the festivities this year.
“Alive Days” commemorate the anniversary of a near-death combat experience as part of the healing process and have been observed by American service members since before the Vietnam War.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Milberg met for dinner and conversation with Duckworth and several other soldiers who shared the experience to honor the day the Black Hawk they were flying was shot down in Iraq.
“It’s always good to see people you’ve deployed with,” said Milberg, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with Company C, 1st Battalion, 106th Assault Helicopter Battalion of Fort Leonard Wood. “They are like blood; like brothers and sisters that maybe you didn’t always get along with, but you’ll always have a strong bond with them.”
Two other current members of Company C, 1-106th — Chief Warrant Officer 4 Patrick Muenks and Fierce — were also involved on that day when Duckworth, then a captain in the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 106th Assault Helicopter Battalion, suffered life-threatening injuries that resulted in the loss of both of her legs and half the blood in her body. Muenks was the air mission commander and pilot of the second Black Hawk that was flying in tandem with the first, while Fierce was the crew chief on the helicopter Milberg and Duckworth were flying.
Had it not been for the quick action of Milberg, Muenks, Fierce and the rest of the members of the flight crews on Nov. 12, 2004, Duckworth likely would have lost her life.
“It’s just a thing we’ve done together for several years on the anniversary,” said Fierce. “We get together and just kind of celebrate the fact that we’re all still alive.”
Milberg was flying that day, while Duckworth, then a captain, was in the other pilot’s seat as the two Black Hawks were about 20 minutes away from their home base in Balad. Their mission had gone smoothly and they’d successfully moved troops and equipment around for about six hours before they made their last stop in Baghdad.
The helicopter tandem was flying fast and low around 4:30 p.m. over a dense date palm-grove near the Tigris River.
Although it hadn’t been done in the past, Milberg, who lives in Robertsville, recalled the palm grove proved to be a good spot for the bad guys to hide for an ambush.
Muenks said the insurgents knew what they were doing.
“It was a coordinated attack. They were just waiting for an aircraft to cross them with their flight path,” Muenks remembered. “They had RPGs and automatic weapons.”
Milberg heard the small arms fire and was looking back to see where it had come from when there was a loud “pop” off to the right front.
“I thought we had actually hit something,” he recalled. “We wear a helmet and inside the helmet we have ear plugs in our ears, so you don’t get much external noise. So when that thing went off, it was loud.”
Up until then, Fierce said it had been a typical day in Iraq.
“Then I heard the RPGs launch and they hit the aircraft,” he recalled. “I saw a big orange fireball outside my window and the blast knocked me back into the aircraft.”
Although it was never proven, Fierce is positive that it was a combination of two RPGs and small arms fire that felled the aircraft.
“It was two RPGs, which I know is debatable because the Army blew the aircraft up, so they could never confirm anything,” he reminisced. “But I know two hit the aircraft because they hit on both sides of me — one underneath the pilot’s seat and one under the bottom corner of my window.”
The Black Hawk began to handle poorly because of the damage.
“I had to make the decision to land the air craft,” Milberg remembered.
Muenks remembered he could tell where the fire had come from, but did not seek to return fire as he centered on the safety of the other Black Hawk.
“We identified the point of origin and then could tell that the lead aircraft was in distress,” Muenks reminisced. “The rounds that hit the aircraft also knocked out the aircraft’s electrical systems, so there was no means for the aircrew in that aircraft to communicate with us or each other. We attempted to check their status via radio and received no response. Once we saw that the aircraft itself was getting into a landing profile, we knew that they couldn’t continue flight. So at that point, our focus was on rescue and recovery.”
Without any means of communication, Fierce said he saw that Milberg was still in control of the aircraft, holding it level, and he began to survey his area of the helicopter.
“There was fire and there was debris burning on the seat and in the floor,” Fierce remembered. “We normally have a fire extinguisher right there, but the blast shredded all that, or I just didn’t see it. So then I just started throwing it outside the door. It was then I realized that the door was open and it wasn’t open whenever we took off. Then I noticed the big hole in the side of the aircraft. I looked down and my knee pads were shredded with blood on them.”
Although he hadn’t realized it, Fierce was wounded in the attack when a ballistic panel was blasted back into his seat and the metal shredded through his right leg, tearing a 2-inch gap through bone and flesh about 2 inches below his knee.
“It took out almost 2 inches of my tibia,” Fierce reminisced. “At that time, it didn’t even hurt.”
It took Milberg less than a minute to safely land the helicopter. Once on the ground, it was the first time he looked to the right to see that Duckworth had been at the very least badly wounded, if not killed.
“She was all the way forward against the instrument panel of the aircraft and was unconscious,” Milberg said. “Because her face was darkened from the soot, something made me think she was deceased.”
Fierce recalled that oil out of the main transmission or hydraulic fluid was pouring into the helicopter, so it was important for the crew to get out of the Black Hawk because of the chance it could catch on fire. Fierce remembered he saw Milberg reach back into the helicopter to shut down an engine and the next thing he knew, Milberg was right outside the door closest to him. Fierce handed Milberg his M-4 carbine and then things got a little hazy.
“I remember grabbing the hand holds to pull myself out the window,” Fierce reminisced. “The next thing I remember is lying on the ground looking at the helicopter. Mr. Milberg will tell you that I fell out the window; he grabbed me and got me away from aircraft. But, I have no recollection of that.”
After Milberg aided Fierce and the crew’s gunner, Spc. Kurt Hannemann, who also was wounded, out of the helicopter, he had them face the rear of the Black Hawk with their weapons to provide security.
“I remember locking and loading,” Fierce recalled. “I had the M-4, laying on my back and looking at the direction we had come from. I was just kind of preparing if somebody was to come.”
Milberg remembered that he thought of the scenario in the movie “Black Hawk Down” and was very concerned that whoever shot at the helicopter would be coming after them.
But that situation didn’t play out as Muenks landed his Black Hawk and the evacuation began. Muenk’s co-pilot, crew chief, and gunner, as well as a lieutenant colonel who was hitching a ride to Balad on his first day in-country, all rushed to help load the wounded.
One of the other crew members and Milberg were the first to get to Duckworth.
“I unbuckled her, grabbed her and pulled her out,” Milberg reminisced.
Milberg recalled he slightly stepped out of line in the rank structure when he yelled for the lieutenant colonel to come help with Duckworth, to free himself up to help Fierce get to the helicopter.
The area they landed in, Milberg remembered, was like an overgrown farm field that was furrowed with vegetation as tall as 6 feet, which made walking difficult.
“You would move a foot and fall, move a foot and fall,” Milberg recalled.
Once everyone was in the helicopter, Muenks took off. It had been less than 10 minutes since the first helicopter had been hit.
The group flew to Taji air strip, which was about 10 minutes away, where it was met by a medical evacuation helicopter that flew the wounded to the corps area support hospital in Baghdad.
“I’ll bet that it was less than 30 minutes from the time they were hit until the time they got to the hospital,” Milberg recalled.
Milberg said the relatively short amount of time it took the crews to get Duckworth to medical attention was a key factor in her survival.
“There’s no doubt,” he said.
Although Duckworth has credited Milberg as being the hero, Milberg defers to Muenks actions in coordinating the rescue.
Once they were stabilized, Duckworth and Fierce were eventually brought back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where they recovered. Fierce was later transferred to General Leonard Wood Hospital where he was released July 22, 2005, and returned to full duty. Fierce, along with Milberg and Muenks, deployed with Company C, 1-106th from June 2008 to May 2009.
Fierce said he doesn’t think about that day much.
“It’s just one of those things that happened and you go on,” Fierce said. “You don’t dwell on it.”
Milberg earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions five years ago, while Fierce and Duckworth each earned a Purple Heart and Air Medal.
Duckworth was still in the process of recovering at Walter Reed Hospital on her first Alive Day.
“Every Alive Day since that day, we’ve tried to be there to celebrate with her — those of us from Missouri who were part of the crew,” Muenks said. “Last year, we couldn’t because we were deployed.”
Duckworth went on to run for congress as a Democrat, but was defeated by an incumbent Republican.
She’s currently the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Milberg said the event didn’t really change his life, other than it being a motivator to continue the mission.
“I’ve always been big on training and being ready,” he said. “I think maybe I’m a little bit overzealous about things.”
If the event would have altered anyone’s life, it should have been Duckworth’s, Milberg said, and she hasn’t let it stop her.
“She picked herself up and drove on,” Milberg said. “She didn’t let it bring her down. She has remained very positive throughout the whole experience. How in the world could I let it bring me down?”