Pilot awarded Distinguished Flying Cross recounts events in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Missy Sterling
  • 442d Fighter Wing Public Affairs

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo.-- In the early morning hours on December 2, 2010, two A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots with the 75th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, launched out of Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, heading west to keep watch over ground forces.

Capt. John “Sapper” Tice, now a major and flight commander with the 303d FS, and Capt. Mike “Balz” Stock, knew heavy Taliban activity emanated from the region they were heading towards—the Helmand River Valley.

“That area in 2010 and 2011, we dropped about half of our ordinance in about a 5 mile circle around that point,” Tice said about the valley. “It was a significant insurgent hotbed to say the least.”

On that day, military engineers worked to build a bridge across a canal and since contact with the Taliban was likely, two Army Special Forces teams were with them to provide cover.

“The special forces guys knew that area pretty well,” said Tice. “They knew there were spotters in the area who were coordinating with the local militants.”

An interpreter on the team listened to local radio traffic and picked up cues that they were being watched, recalled Tice. After learning this, the joint terminal attack controller, whose job is to direct airstrikes and keep the ground and air forces in communication, gave the pilots certain areas for them to monitor.

“We were looking at our little 5 inch T.V. screens, looking at tree lines and houses for suspicious activity,” said Tice about using his targeting pod. “It’s hard to explain what that looks like, but you just know it when you see it after you’ve been there for awhile.”

Tice caught movement in a tree line and alerted the JTAC.

Ultimately, the ground forces responded by detaining the suspicious person after questioning him and finding materials that tied him to the Taliban.

“That was the first warning,” Tice said. “We started aerial refueling at that point, and we were doing what we call 'yo-yo' where one of us leaves to get gas then comes back then the other one leaves, comes back.”

The pilots continued their sweeps of the area by choosing adjacent buildings and dividing the responsibility in north and south sections. During a sweep, alarm bells began ringing in Tice's head when he spotted a figure laying flat on top of a roof.

"He started crawling on the roof which is not normal,” he said. “He was maybe 150 meters from the friendlies on the west side of them. I watched him slink back, climb down a latter and run through a doorway to this room that probably had four or five people already in it."

At this point, it was Tice’s turn to go to the tanker, so his flight lead radioed to higher command for permission to strike this building after getting target confirmation from the Special Forces members on the ground. Higher command did not approve because they weren't sure if non-combatants were in other parts of the building and they did not want to cause unnecessary damage to the building.

They continue to keep watch over the area while the engineers work on constructing a bridge. To Tice's knowledge, the engineers blew up a demolition charge on the bank of the river and at that moment the spotter runs out of the building, climbs up a latter, crawls across the building and peeks out.

Now that the spotter moved to this position, the pilots coordinate with the JTAC and Special Forces to help one of their snipers locate him and take him out with one of their assets because it would not require coordination with higher authorities.

"That sends the people who were in that building into a frenzy, but they don't leave the compound so we're still in the same predicament," said Tice.

The pilots continue to 'yo-yo' when the now confirmed militants in the building make a mad dash south into a tree line.

"Now they've fixed our tactical problem of not being able to hit buildings,” he said. “Our JTAC starts working on targeting data for a strike. We do four strafe passes, then it gets more intense. I remember my JTAC saying, 'holy shit, an RPG just passed right over my head.'"

The Special Forces members were now inside a 100-meter gunfight.

"We get another 9-line, and I remember Balz tells me, 'I'm thinking, same run in, but low-angle strafe,' and he's like, 'are you fine with that?' I'm like, 'two's ready,'" said Tice about an exchange he had with his flight lead.

They decided to fly in low and close to mitigate the risk to friendly forces despite the increased risk and exposure to enemy surface fire.

“I could hear our JTAC using his weapon as well. I remember the tone of his voice getting super excited, but it was also super calm,” Tice recounted. “It wasn't panicky. He was rock solid. I don't think I would have been able to do that.”

Both pilots unloaded their guns, expending more than 2,300 rounds of ammo, killing 32 enemies with no friendly casualties.

“That was the only time that I've employed that close and the only time I've ever unloaded a whole gun out of a jet,” said Tice. “I was starting to panic when we saw a couple hundred rounds remaining. We were getting ready to get replaced, but at the time I had no concept of that because I was so focused and unaware.”

Tice said he felt pride for doing his job, but that any A-10 pilot from the youngest to the most experienced would have done the same thing.

“It felt nice knowing those guys got to go home for Christmas,” said Tice about the ground forces. “Those guys arguably may not have needed our help, but it was cool to be able to make it easier for them.”

He said aside from training hard, the main contributor to a successful close air support mission is all the support that happens behind the scenes.

“We trained hard and we trained often so that on that day, we could do our job,” he said. “But we were able to focus on that because finance had done their job. Because medical had done their job and maintenance had given us two good airplanes. We can't do what we do without everyone else doing his or her job and doing it like a rockstar.”