NATC-A aviator awarded Purple Heart
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Tech. Sgt. James Juniper, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan Mi-17 special mission aviator adviser, was awarded the Purple Heart in a ceremony Oct. 10 at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
Juniper, who is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and from Keota, received the award for his actions during a mission Oct. 8 when he was shot in the neck by enemy fire.
"I'd like to tell my crew thanks for saving my life," said Juniper about the event. "I owe them my life and I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them."
The Oct. 8 mission was a troop movement mission transporting Afghan National Army commandos from Tarin Khowt Airfield in Uruzgan Province to the district of Gizab. The two-ship formation of Mi-17 helicopters had just completed a successful drop-off and began to ascend out of the mountainous bowl surrounding the lush Gizab Valley to return to Tarin Khowt for fuel and to pick-up the next load of commandos.
During the second approach into the valley, multiple gunshots were heard from the right side of the second aircraft in the formation. Staff Sgt. Mark Cornett, NATC-A Mi-17 SMA advisor stationed at Joint Base Andrews and from Baltimore, Md., and Staff Sgt. Ben Jacobs, NATC-A Mi-17 SMA adviser stationed at Davis-Monthan AFB and from Uniontown, Wash., positively identified the source of the gunfire. Cornett initiated an evasive break away maneuver from the threat, while Jacobs began to engage the enemy with his M4 rifle.
"I heard the first shot, as I called the initial evasive maneuver the volume of the enemy gunfire increased significantly," said Cornett.
Upon hearing shots, Capt. Jeremy Powell, NATC-A Mi-17 pilot adviser stationed at JB Andrews and from Bellevue, Neb., swiftly took control of the aircraft, aggressively turning away from the threat. Simultaneously, Cornett began returning fire when several more shots were heard from a second point of origin, with the apparent sound of three rounds impacting the helicopter. Jacobs, observing additional enemy insurgents from a third location, called a right break maneuver while firing shots at the insurgents' location. It was then that Cornett and Jacobs observed Juniper lying unconscious on the floor of the aircraft's cabin.
"In this trade, you're always prepared to get shot at, but there is still that initial surprise when the first bullet snaps by," said Jacobs. "The sheer volume of fire immediately told me that this was different from a typical enroute 'pop shot' style engagement."
Jacobs scrambled through a crowded cabin to the aid of the fallen gunner. Jacobs identified that he had been shot in the neck and applied direct pressure to the wound.
On the tail of the aircraft, Cornett observed gunfire from a fourth position and began returning fire. As Powell began a left break away from small-arms fire, he spotted an insurgent launch a rocket-propelled grenade and rapidly tightened his turn, narrowly avoiding contact with the projectile.
"In that moment, when you see the smoke from an RPG launch, you max perform the aircraft and pray it's enough," said Powell.
As the formation began to exit the valley, Powell witnessed the plume from a second RPG and directed the aircraft away from the threat. Cornett, Jacobs and Staff Sgt. Chris Rector, NATC-A Mi-17 SMA adviser, began stripping Juniper of body armor and administering medical care.
Juniper was taken to the hospital at Tarin Khowt Airfield where he was stabilized. He was later medically evacuated to the KAF Role 3 hospital by U.S. Army medics where he made a full recovery.
"I still think the job we do is a very important one," said Juniper. "This wound won't deter me from getting back out there and getting the job done."
The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the United States armed forces who are wounded in combat operations by enemy combatants.