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It was supposed to be their quiet night off.
The guardian angels of the 212th Rescue Squadron had been in Afghanistan for two months. The crew, known for their constant rescue alert mission back home in Alaska, had been working out of Camp Bastion, flying casualty evacuation missions from the sprawling base multiple times a day.
Maj. Matthew Komatsu, the group's combat rescue officer, had some administrative work he wanted to do the night of Sept. 14, 2012. Pararescueman Master Sgt. Kyle Minshew was headed to the gym. It was just his second day off since arriving in July, and he planned to get a workout in.
At about 10 p.m., their hand-held radios crackled. HC-130 crews down the flight line made the first distress call.
"Bunkering down. Taking small arms and RPG fire."
The PJs in the squadron ran to the operations center, where everyone was huddled around radios. Some pushed out security to make sure their headquarters and flight lineweresafe.
They asked for confirmation, and as the horizon across the base began to glow orange, flames climbed into the night sky. The phone rang.
"They had some casualties over on the Marine side of the flight line," Komatsu said. "They asked if we had any bodies to spare, to go over and help out with the casualties."
The major turned to his airmen. He needed volunteers.
"We figured people were hurt," Minshew said. "We should get over there and respond."
Komatsu and Minshew grabbed their full gear. They grabbed two more PJs, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Barendregt and Tech. Sgt. Dan Warren of the 308th Rescue Squadron, and jumped into the closest unarmored white pickup.
They drove toward the glow and gunfire.
"We weren't sure exactly what we were getting into," Komatsu said. "So it made sense to go out in our full battle rattle."
What they drove into was the largest enemy incursion onto an American airfield since the Tet Offensive. For their actions in repelling the raid at Camp Bastion, three of the airmen on Dec. 7 were awarded the Bronze Star with Valor.
'Straight to the fireball'
Camp Bastion is the main British military base in Afghanistan, and was home to Marine Attack Squadron 211. The sprawling complex, connected to the Marine Corps' Camp Leatherneck to the west, uses a large runway and flight apron, which separated them from the attack.
Fifteen insurgents, in groups of five and dressed as American troops, had stormed the base, destroying aircraft and infrastructure and firing on anyone they could find.
The airmen drove their small pickup across the active runway, through ditches to the fight.
"We drove straight to the fireball," Minshew said.
As they approached, a Marine Cobra attack helicopter was off the ground. A giant fuel pit was turned into a raging inferno, with flames shooting more than 100 feet into the air.
The group stopped at an aircraft canopy and connected with British medics who were treating a few casualties. A truck pulled up with a member of the British quick reaction force, shouting for help with casualties. The PJs and British troops rushed to the firefight. Armored vehicles were unloading their .50-caliber machine guns on an enemy position.
"They dropped us off, and it was game on," Barendregt said. "There was shooting all around."
The insurgents were taking cover about 50 meters away. Straight ahead, up a hill were the casualties, shouting for help. One at a time, the PJs sprinted 100 yards through the battle.
"We ran through the firefight," Komatsu said. "The engagement was going on above our heads and around us."
He could hear the bullets flying around him as he followed the other PJs to the position. There, they treated five friendly troops who had been hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.
The PJs stabilized the patients as the firefight waned. The Cobra's guns had silenced the insurgents at the hangar, and moved on to a cryogenics storage compound where more insurgents were holed up.
The PJs and the British troops formed an assault team to take the compound and shut down the attack.
"They said they were going to assault and clear the compound, so we joined them for that," Komatsu said. "At that point, we were fully embedded with the British team."
The group approached the cryogenics compound on foot, methodically clearing small buildings and shipping containers.
"It was kind of a nightmare scenario with how dark it was," Komatsu said.
As they entered, two Marines came out. They were holed up in the complex and could hear the insurgents talking. They were the only friendlies in the complex, hiding until help came.
"We went in knowing we were going to make contact with the enemy at some point, and it was just a question of where," Komatsu said.
The Marines told them the insurgents were wearing U.S. Army uniforms to blend in during the attack.
"It got real because now we're worried about fratricide within our own ranks," Barendregt said.
They began to make their way through the dark complex. Ahead was a concrete bunker. Five insurgents were hiding inside and began firing on the group.
A group splintered off to approach the bunker. As they crept, an insurgent saw them and attempted to throw a grenade. It bounced off and exploded inside his own bunker. The lead British troop "went full auto" and took them all out, Komatsu said.
The grenade blast ignited the clothing on the dead insurgents, burning their ammunition belts and firing off rounds, putting the group in danger as they were surrounded by liquid oxygen tanks.
"Even though they were dead, they were still a threat," Barendregt said. "If a stray bullet hit a tank, it would have vaporized the compound. It's not the best place to be, but we still needed to get work done."
They continued to clear the complex, careful to identify friendlies and take out any remaining insurgents. They made it through and regrouped on the flight line with a total of 40 troops, and moved the mile north to the Harrier squadron.
Komatsu grabbed his radio and called for a Marine helicopter — call sign Righteous.
"Any Righteous, any Righteous. This is Varsity-One Actual," Komatsu recalled in a narrative he wrote for The New York Times.
"Varsity, this is Righteous," the radio returned.
"Righteous, be advised: We have potential friendlies in the area. Please hold fire."
Komatsu went through the group to make sure he knew the location of all the known friendlies around the hangars. The helicopters identified five insurgents hiding behind concrete barriers.
"You are cleared hot," Komatsu told the Cobra.
Komatsu directed more attack runs from helicopters, troops cheering as they unloaded their Gatling guns on insurgent positions, clearing the way for the group to enter and clear the Harrier hangars. Four insurgents were dead, onewas wounded and clutching a grenade. They cleared the buildings, Warren's group spotted the insurgent and his team took him out.
After about five hours, the attack was finally over.
A commander down
The PJs and British troops cleared the hangars and made contact with a group of Marines who had been hunkered down in a small building protected by concrete barriers. They were with their lone casualty: Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, commander of Marine Attack Squadron 211, who was mortally wounded as the insurgents attacked the Harrier group.
"They were keeping his body there," Komatsu said, later explaining that the Marines were not ready to let him go. "We took charge of the remains, covered his body with the flag and escorted him back to the base hospital."
Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13, were killed in the attack. Fourteen insurgents were dead, with another captured. The PJ team was credited with seven lives saved and helping take back control of the base.
In all, the 212th and two other Alaska Air National Guard rescue units were credited with saving 226 lives during the entire deployment.
It was a defining mission of the PJs' deployment and of recent U.S. actions in Afghanistan. But for the PJs, there was no time to waste.
They returned for a quick debrief at about 4 a.m., grabbed what sleep they could, and were back on alert that same day. Within hours, they hopped in a Pave Hawk and saved two Marines wounded in a firefight.
"There was no time; it didn't stop our ops tempo," Minshew said. "We still pressed on on our missions. I was just a little more tired the next day, that's it."
"Everybody outside of Bastion doesn't take time off just because Bastion was attacked," Barendregt said. "We owed it to everybody out there to be back up on alert and ready to go."
'A good group of guys'
On Dec. 7, the members of the 212th Rescue Squadron — Komatsu, Barendregt and Minshew — were awarded the Bronze Star with Valor, while families, friends and fellow guardian angels watched fromthe audience. Komatsu's parents were traveling abroad and videoconferenced in on a tablet computer.
Warren, who is based at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., has been approved for a Bronze Star with Valor, but has not been presented with it yet.
The medals are nice, but not the ultimate goal for the airmen, they said.
"It's a tremendous honor to be awarded the Bronze Star with Valor," said Komatsu, who has been a combat rescue officer since 2005 after serving as an OSI agent. "But really, the behind-the-scenes story is also a part of that as well. It's just really a sense of pride for what we did. A sense of pride for the entire rescue group with all the things we do on a day-to-day basis."
Barendregt, who has been a PJ for 22 years, said the medal makes him proud, but he responded to that mission because he got the call. "We just happened to be there, finding work," he said. "If there's somebody out there who needs help, we're going and helping them." ■