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The machine gun rounds sounded like popcorn as they punched holes in the Osprey's fuselage. Sgt. Shane Moreland, perched at the aircraft's tail gun, began raining lead on enemy positions as he and his aircrew made the final approach to insert reconnaissance Marines in a predawn raid in southern Afghanistan on the morning of June 27, 2012.
Marines with Alpha Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, and accompanying Afghan National Army soldiers were interdicting drug movements and seizing weapons caches. It was the job of two Osprey crews with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squandron 365 to insert them in two waves. The first wave had gone without incident. Both aircraft touched down, put Marines and ANA in the dirt and left to pick up reinforcements.
But by the time they returned with supporting forces, the enemy had mustered and raked the landing zone with medium machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire as the two aircraft made their final approach. By the end of the mission, both aircraft would be badly damaged, causing one crew to nearly ditch in the desert. The mission, however, was a success and the raid force would take only one casualty — an Afghan soldier shot in the leg.
For their actions that day seven aircrew members were recognized June 26 aboard Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C. Among them were two Marines who became the first MV-22 Osprey pilots to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross — the fourth highest award aircrew members can receive after the Silver Star, Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor.
Going in hot
As the Ospreys entered the LZ for the second time, they were met with an overwhelming volume of enemy fire. The first Osprey, Dash-1, flown by co-pilot Capt. David Austin, didn't hear the call to wave off, Moreland said. Armed escorts began suppressing enemy positions, and Moreland's Osprey, Dash-2, piloted by Capt. David Haake, veered away and went into a holding pattern.
Despite being in a kill zone, the crew of Dash-1, including pilot Maj. Michael Hutchings, aerial observer Sgt. John Leist and crew chief Sgt. Matthew Belleci, managed to get their passengers out of the aircraft with no injuries.
Moreland, Austin, Leist and Belleci would earn the Air Medal for their actions that day, and Haake and Hutchings would become the first of their field to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.
"While inserting an element of the force, Captain Austin's aircraft encountered enemy resistance from rocket-propelled grenades and medium machine gun fire, resulting in extensive damage to critical flight control systems," Austin's award citation reads. "Despite continual engagement with enemy forces during departure from the landing zone, Captain Austin skillfully flew the severely damaged aircraft with crew safely back to Camp Bastion."
Even with severe damage to his aircraft, he later returned to the heavily defended area to withdraw the raid force, "thereby enabling the successful completion of their mission."
Hutchings, who also helped pilot Dash-1, directed suppressive fire, landed and unloaded the remaining portion of the raid force during the second wave of the raid.
"Major Hutchings' heroic actions in the face of danger saved the lives of his crew and allowed for the insertion and extraction of the reconnaissance raid force to and from a highly contested objective area," according to the citation.
Leist, as the aerial observer aboard Dash-1 , "calmly guided his aircraft to the landing zone which allowed the raid force to disembark the aircraft and immediately engage the enemy," according to his citation. Belleci "delivered suppressive machine gun fire to enemy forces on the approach."
Moreland and Dash-2 didn't touch down with the first group, however. After veering away from the landing zone, Moreland's aircraft held for about 20 to 30 minutes, he said. The armed escorts told the pilot, Haake, that the LZ was still hot, but if they came in from a different heading they would lay down supporting fire.
"The pilot made sure we were all kosher with going in while fires were in the zone," Moreland told Marine Corps Times.
They flew in and, on approach, rounds started snapping by.
"I began shooting from about 150 feet in the air, so I could hear machine guns going off before I saw them. It sounds like popcorn when it goes through carbon fiber. Then I started seeing them and the muzzle flashes," he said.
It was still dark and they were operating with night vision goggles, giving them some cover but also adding to the chaos.
In all, the aircraft would take 12 rounds, damaging flight controls, causing a fuel line puncture and badly injuring an Afghan soldier.
"At that point, I didn't even really relay all the information. ... I've shot with Capt. Haake, so he had an understanding that if I was shooting, it was probably for a good reason," Moreland said.
They landed, unloaded their passengers except for the casualty and left the landing zone. As soon as they were clear, Moreland began administering aid to the Afghan. Unable to find a tourniquet, he tore the sleeve off his uniform and improvised one to stem the bleeding.
Losing fuel fast, and unable to switch into airplane mode, the Osprey was on the verge of failing.
"We had damage to some of our flight controls. They hit a fuel line directly. That's why we were were losing so much fuel," he said. "Once we lifted, we decided what FOB we were going to go to because we knew we couldn't make it back to Camp Bastion. We kept losing all this fuel, and we didn't think we had enough to make it to the FOB we were actually trying to get to. So Capt. Haake up front called the escorts and told them to attach to us, because we thought we were going to put it down in the desert."
Low fuel wasn't the only concern.
"We weren't able to take it down to airplane mode," he said. "Anytime we tried to do that, it pulled the airplane down and to the right. The gear boxes were getting hot. The way we mitigate that is by going down to airplane mode. So along with all the other faults that we had, our transmissions were getting hot enough that they weren't going to operate much longer," Moreland said.
It wasn't until settling safely at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh that Moreland surveyed the damage and was taken aback.
"I looked at the damage and realized how close it had been for all of us," he said. "I had four seats that took bullet holes through them. The ANA solder was shot through the leg because he didn't have a pack on. Other Marines sit forward on the edge of the seat because of their packs. There were holes around the tail where I was, too."
Moreland's citation lauds his actions throughout the mission.
"Displaying courage, poise and superb situational awareness in spite of extreme adversity, he skillfully assessed aircraft damage, stabilized the casualty and assisted with a landing in the security of Forward Operation Base Edinburgh," his citation reads.
Haake is credited with getting Dash-2 safely to the ground.
"Captain Haake departed the landing zone and maneuvered his aircraft, despite the severe control systems issues and a massive fuel leak, to a safe landing," according to his citation.
Capt. Joel Vandenende, a pilot on Dash-2, received an Air Medal. His "bold and heroic actions in the face of danger saved the lives of Marines and a wounded Afghan soldier," according to his citation.