On Nov. 14, 2010, on a rescue mission in Afghanistan, Master Sgt. Roger Sparks and Capt. Koaalii Bailey stepped out of a hovering helicopter and into a blizzard of gunfire.
"I thought we had three seconds to live," Sparks said.
The two men, members of the 212th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing, hung from a cable lowering them 40 feet to a rocky mountainside. Bullets flew from every direction. Three struck the cable.
Just as Sparks' feet touched ground, a rocket-propelled grenade exploded about 20 feet from him.
"The world just turned orange," he said.
The 176th Wing is headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. It's one of the largest Air Guard units in the country. Some of the 1,400 members are traditional "citizen-soldiers" with civilian jobs who train a weekend a month and pull full-time duty two weeks a year.
A significant part of the force, however, consists of career military professionals. That's particularly the case with the "rescue triangle" -- the 210th and 211th Rescue Squadrons, which fly helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and the pararescuemen, or "PJs," of the 212th.
These units are well known in Alaska for daring rescues of civilian hikers, hunters, sailors and climbers in perilous weather in extreme places.
The Wing's 11th Rescue Coordination Center, which oversees their operations, is credited with saving more than 1,500 lives in or near Alaska over the past two decades.
But the squadrons' primary mission is combat search and rescue -- getting wounded soldiers to safety while under fire.
Elements of the Wing have been rotated in and out of the Afghanistan conflict many times since 2003. Deployments can last as little as 30 days or as long as a year.
The most recent deployment of the 212th to Afghanistan began last September. Coalition casualties had hit an all-time high that summer, so the assignment wasn't expected to be easy.
But PJs aren't shopping for easy assignments, least of all 38-year-old Sparks. He enlisted in the Marines in 1991, right after graduating from high school in Watauga, Texas. He took part in serious fighting as part of an elite Force Reconnaissance company, often working far behind enemy lines.
A lanky, powerfully built 6-foot-8, Sparks, whose nickname is "Big Frog," has a gentle demeanor and a lively sense of humor. He said he worried that the Marines might move him to a desk job as he gained seniority, so he switched to the pararescue service and moved to Alaska in 2004. Being a PJ "let me keep my hands dirty" -- actively parachuting into wilderness, scuba diving in freezing waters, and hanging from helicopters in war zones.
"I guess I'm a glutton for punishment," he said.
But Sparks said he had never seen action as furious as that in Afghanistan in November. "Not in combat, not in movies, not anywhere."
In terms of American fatalities, Operation Bulldog Bite ranks among the bloodiest battles of the Afghanistan war, though few at home ever heard about it.
Sparks recently sat at the kitchen table of his house in a quiet Eagle River subdivision, sipping a cup of green tea with milk and honey, gazing at a peaceful vista of Chugach State Park, and told the story.
The Watapur Valley lies along the northeast edge of Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan. The valley is surrounded by a steep, rocky, mountainous high desert, one broken by ravines and gullies with sparse vegetation and a few small trees. Sparks described it as "extremely exposed."
Because the region has little strategic importance, U.S. and coalition forces have generally stayed away. But when it became known that insurgents were using the area for training camps and weapons depots, U.S. commanders decided to strike, to, in Sparks' words, "stomp the foot, show that we had the ability to go anywhere, any time."
The operation was Bulldog Bite. It started on Nov. 12 with the Army's storied 101st Airborne Division going in. PJs were stationed nearby to answer the soldiers' calls for help.
It was supposed to last three days.
Insurgent resistance proved much stiffer than anticipated, however. In the Alaska PJs' first mission, on the second day of the fight, Airman Jimmy Settle of Anchorage, a West High graduate, was injured by shrapnel, which lodged in his head.
The rescue helicopters had been stripped of their heavy armor to make it easier to reach the fighting at about 7,000 feet. Without armor, bullets popped through the floor as the craft flew in and out. They were quickly patched with the equivalent of metal duct tape and sent back up.
At 4:11 p.m. on Nov. 14, day three, Sparks and Bailey were called in to pick up one man killed in action, two seriously wounded and one less seriously wounded.
(If the name Koa Bailey sounds familiar, he was a record-setting star quarterback at Chugiak High School in the 1990s. In military terminology, he's not a PJ, the shorthand used here, but a Combat Rescue Officer or "CRO.")
It was a fairly routine call, Sparks said. "I thought, no big deal."
But on the five-minute flight into the zone, he began to feel that something was wrong. The number of reported casualties jumped to six.
"The guy on the radio was super emotional," Sparks said, "cursing, freaking out."
The PJs were told that the area had been calm for 15 minutes, however. So Sparks and Bailey prepared to be lowered by cable from the hovering chopper. As they crouched in the doorway, 40 feet in the air, the area just exploded.
As soon as they touched down, the blast of the RPG knocked both men off their feet.
"I don't know how we didn't get killed," Sparks said, or "the helicopter didn't get hit and come crashing down on us."
Heavy "crew-fed" machine-gun fire raked the area. The helicopter crew shot back, showering the two prostrate guardsmen with empty shell casings.
"I cannot imagine a more comforting sound than the .50-caliber firing and casings raining down on us," Sparks said.
But the comfort was short-lived.
Soldiers of the 101st were gathered near a tree about 100 yards from where the rescuers had put down. Accompanied by the sound of constant incoming fire, they ran for the tree and were nearly there when it was obliterated by an RPG.
They got back on their feet and ran to the soldiers.
One man, his helmet and teeth missing from the blast, appeared to be in charge. "Smoke?" he said.
Sparks thought he meant signal flares, so he said, "We have two red and two green."
The man -- most likely a sergeant -- indicated that the platoon commander was incapacitated or possibly dead and that he was in charge.
"I thought you were going to die on your way in," he said.
The helicopter, by then low on fuel and ammunition, left to return to base. In the chopper were a third PJ and their medical supplies. The incoming fire had made it impossible to lower them to the ground.
Sparks tried to assess the situation as machine-gun bullets "continued to engulf the area, a maze of tracer fire interlocking around us."
The Americans were surrounded, being shot at incessantly from at least three positions.
What Sparks didn't immediately realize was that all the fire was coming from the enemy. The 101st was out of ammunition for their own heavy machine guns, the muscle of modern ground warfare. Sparks had a light rifle with him, but using it against big weapons in hidden positions would have been "like throwing rocks."
He realized the insurgents were maneuvering, preparing to overrun the Americans.
The ground shook from incoming rounds as a soldier came rolling over a knoll. He told the PJs that the wounded were 20 yards over the hill. "Don't go there," he said. "You'll be killed, too."
It took 20 minutes, Sparks thinks, to get approval for Apache gunships to send Hellfire missiles whistling over their shoulders to strike the most troublesome enemy positions. A jet followed up, dropping a 2,000-pound bomb.
The bomb hit extremely close to the Americans. "I don't know how the percussion didn't kill us all," Sparks said. "But that settled (the enemy) down enough that we could move the casualties."
While rubble from the U.S. bomb was still raining down, the PJs sprinted over the hill. They saw wounded soldiers strung out over a landscape that Sparks described as "Turnagain Arm steep," what the military calls class 4 and 5 terrain (ropes being recommended for maneuvering in the latter).
"Guys tossed everywhere, screaming and moaning," he recalled. "Cordite, burning bushes, blown up rucks, armor blown off guys, chewed up earth. Everything was naked and raw."
Without the medical supplies that were supposed to follow them out of the helicopter, the PJs were limited to the one-man first aid packs they carried on them.
Sporadic fire continued as Sparks reached the first man, struggling for breath with "a triangular wound on his right side big enough that you could fit a fist through."
He grabbed a chest seal package -- "duct tape that would stick on a sweating gorilla" -- and put it inside the cavity to keep air from collapsing the lung. He used a giant needle to relieve air pressure in the chest and gave his patient a fentanyl "lollipop" (a painkiller 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine).
The man lay in a somewhat defensible depression from which casualties could be hoisted out. The spot became the casualty collection point.
Bailey, in combat for the first time, created a mini-command post, coordinating communications and organizing the soldiers to secure a perimeter. Sparks clambered up the steep slope to check on other wounded soldiers.
The first man had one of his triceps blown off. He was screaming. Sparks applied a tourniquet. The next had a massive wound in his buttocks and hip. Sparks applied a field dressing. A third man, dangling upside down from a scrub tree, was eviscerated.
"I stuffed his guts back into his body, ripped off his shirt and shoved it on top of his evisceration. I was out of anything plastic," the standard field dressing to keep exposed internal organs from drying out.
He passed a prone man with a gun, apparently on guard, and another "just kicked back with his helmet off, asking if his buddies would be all right."
Sparks returned to the first man, who was spitting blood and slipping away. "He died clutching and looking me in the eyes."
Sparks removed the chest pack and a fentanyl pop to use on other wounded men. He began to drag them, one by one, down to the collection point.
"I was a one-man wrecking crew," he said.
Looking for help, he returned to the man without a helmet and found him talking, maybe about his daughter, "then just mumbling off into babbling nothingness."
Sparks tried to lift him; he felt his hand slip into the back of the man's head.
He then tried to rouse the prone man he thought was on guard. He, too, was dead, with massive wounds to his face and chest.
The loss of three patients in minutes hit him hard. He remembered his emotions racing between extremes of frustration, anger and grief.
The counterassault from the air and, crucially, the coming of night, brought a relative calm. Still, the fog of war remained thick. The soldiers, who had endured three days of persistent ambushes before this engagement, were bordering on shock, "sputtering, just cooked. They seemed like ghosts," Sparks said.
The guardsmen had essentially taken command of the platoon. Soldiers who could still move brought the injured to the collection point.
Sparks worried that the position might be overrun at any time. He removed weapons and armor from the dead and sorted it for use by the living.
He and Bailey had now been on the ground about two hours. They struggled to keep their traumatized patients alive, performing triage while "pot shots" continued to fly.
The temperature had dropped to near freezing when the refueled helicopters returned with medical supplies and help -- including the injured Jimmy Settle. The Alaska PJ had had the shrapnel stitched in place in his scalp so he could get back into action. He would get it removed a week later.
The most critically injured were hoisted into two helicopters and flown out first. Another chopper lifted the dead, along with Bailey and Sparks. The PJs had to ride sitting on the bodies of four men killed in action.
"We wanted to treat them with as much respect as possible," Sparks said, "but we were just crammed in the back of the chopper."
Sparks said he felt overwhelmed by a sense of personal responsibility and guilt.
"These were men who were counting on me and died," he said. "I have to live with that. That's not something that goes away."
Upon landing, they somberly placed the dead men into body bags and draped them with flags.
Though it was night, there was no rest. Thirty minutes after delivering the bodies, the 212th PJs took off on another mission. During the week of Bulldog Bite, team members averaged no more than a couple of hours of sleep a day.
According to after-action reports, only eight men from the platoon were not wounded in the engagement. Over the course of the operation the rescue team pulled out 60 soldiers, 49 of whom were wounded. Most required hoisting into a hovering helicopter. Almost every lift was, in Sparks' words, "contested by the enemy."
After a week of constant action, the PJs arrived at Bagram Airfield, a major coalition base. The press was waiting. The exhausted PJs didn't feel like talking with reporters, but they made an exception for Casey Neistat, a self-described "punk artist from New York City."
Neistat is half of "The Neistat Brothers" show, which debuted on HBO last year. He is an award-winning filmmaker whose work has been featured at the Sundance and Cannes festivals. He may be best known for the industry-rattling online video expose, "iPod's Dirty Secret."
Neistat was in Afghanistan hoping to make a documentary about tattoo culture in the military. With him was Scott Campbell, a tattoo artist who has shown his work in fine art galleries in London and New York, and been the subject of a New York Times profile.
"We'd been there for three days, but the right circumstances kept eluding us," Neistat recalled. "Then we met the Alaska PJs."
Neistat approached Sparks as he was getting off the helicopter and the two immediately connected.
"We weren't your typical journalists and they weren't your typical soldiers," Neistat said.
Campbell, who had brought his needles and ink, offered to decorate any man who wanted a tattoo with any design he wanted. The pararescuemen lined up.
"Campbell tattooed around the clock," Neistat said. "He went three days straight."
Sparks had the names of his sons, Orion and Ozric, tattooed on his chest. On his right arm, he had Campbell put the date, time and coordinates of the Watapur fight.
"During that time we realized what the boys were coming back from," Neistat said. "It was only more recently that we learned of the magnitude of the fight and their involvement."
Neistat's film, temporarily titled "Five Days in Afghanistan," is still in progress. He hopes to have it finished later this year.
The business is not really finished for the PJs, however. Sparks, for one, continues to grieve.
"Four men died in my arms that night," he said. "Sometimes what we can provide will never be enough."
Still, he finds solace in the patients who survived. "When you see those young guys on the ground, the bone marrow of America, and to be able to take our years of experience when they needed us and know that we saved four guys' lives, it makes me feel that my efforts were repaid.
"I know we did everything we could for those men. It's the only closure I have found."
The 212th, back in Alaska, has returned to business as usual: plucking bear-mauled campers out of the Talkeetna Mountains, or getting mothers with problem pregnancies off Little Diomede Island. They go out on about three such calls every week.
Sparks has been recommended for a Silver Star. The names of five other men of the 212th who took part in the action -- Senior Master Sgt. Doug Widener, Tech Sgt. Brandon Stuemke, (now) Staff Sgt. Jimmy Settle, Sr. Airmen Aaron Parcha and Staff Sgt. Ted Sierocinski -- have been recommended for Distinguished Flying Crosses.
The military has sent Sparks and Bailey to tell their story to other PJ units to help prepare them for intense situations.
In April, Sparks addressed the graduating class at the Air Force Pararescue School at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The graduates had just finished one of the most rigorous training regimes in the world. Like the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, PJs are counted among the military's "special services." The attrition rate for candidates is more than 90 percent.
Like other elite troops, they can kill using their bare hands. But in a profession that necessarily concentrates on ways to cause death, their mission uniquely focuses on keeping people alive under extreme conditions.
Two things are necessary to accomplish that mission, Sparks told the graduates. One is resolve.
"Training can take us only so far," he said. "I have seen equipment and knowledge fail men in combat, but there is nothing as tragic as when a man's resolve falters."
The other requirement is to work with the right intention.
"I feel that we have this one on our side. What is more pure than trying to save another's life?"
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.