Two Alaska Air National Guardsmen received awards at ceremonies on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Saturday, one earned in fierce combat in Afghanistan, the other for helping civilians in a fiery plane crash in Anchorage.
Staff Sgt. Jimmy Settle of the 212th Rescue Squadron was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received in Afghanistan on Nov. 13, 2010. Settle was wounded when his helicopter rescue crew was sent into a maelstrom of fire in the Watapur Valley on the border with Pakistan to recover wounded soldiers.
The unit is famous in Alaska for daring high-altitude rescues of civilians on Mount McKinley and other remote wilderness locations. But that's not its main mission.
"We're essentially 911 for troops in combat," Settle said.
Approaching the pickup site, Settle saw muzzle flashes coming from a mud hut. Within moments he was struck by a fragment from AK-47 fire.
He remembered a sound "like a bag of dirty, wet diapers hitting a wall at 200 miles an hour" when he was hit. It knocked him to the other side of the Black Hawk helicopter.
"I didn't lose consciousness," he said. But he did lose vision as blood washed over his sunglasses. He began probing his forehead, thinking his brains must be coming out.
"I'm realizing, 'I got hit by a bullet in my head. Now I'm scared,' " he said.
The helicopter quickly turned back to get Settle to medical care.
By that time, the operation, dubbed "Bulldog Bite," had become frantic. Insurgents had the numbers and weapons to swamp the American troops. Master Sgt. Roger Sparks, leading Settle's team, had served as a Marine in Afghanistan before switching to the rescue squadron but, he said, had never seen such furious action: "Not in combat, not in movies, not anywhere." A steady flow of calls for help were coming in.
Knowing that extraction of the shrapnel would ground him for a recovery period lasting at least several days, Settle asked that the wound be stitched up with the fragment still in his forehead so that he could continue to help with the mission.
"It felt like a giant pain Mohawk," he said, tracing a line from above his left eyebrow, where the fragment struck, to the back of his head. But he was able to return to duty within 24 hours.
Sparks estimated most of the crew got one hour of sleep a day for an eight-day stretch. Not until the troops were out did Settle have the fragment removed.
He drew a picture of it, roughly the size and shape of a large dog claw that hasn't been trimmed for a month.
He was later told that the bullet was manufactured in China.
Settle was born and raised in Anchorage and graduated from West High School in 1996. He was smiling and looking fully recovered at the ceremony on Saturday. The scar is not noticeable.
The other airman honored Saturday, also of the 176th Air Control Squadron, was Capt. Erik C. Boltman, an air weapons officer, originally from Greeley, Colo. He received the Airman's Medal for risking his life to save victims in a civilian plane crash on June 1 last year.
Boltman told the Daily News that he was driving through Fairview after visiting a friend when he saw a Cessna 206, taking off from Merrill Field, crash at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Ingra Street, less than 200 feet from him.
The plane began burning on impact. Boltman ran to it with a fire extinguisher. He pulled off a door and removed the pilot.
"He directed and coordinated actions of civilian volunteers and authorities on further rescue actions accounting for two additional survivors," reads the citation. "Despite the growing intensity of smoke and heat as the flames spread, Captain Boltman returned to the aircraft to assist in the removal of a fourth survivor pinned in the forward area of the aircraft. Upon learning that the pilot had erred on the passenger count, Captain Boltman rushed a fourth time to the aircraft in the attempt to locate the last passenger but was driven back as the aircraft burst into flames."
At that point, he turned his attention to keeping the survivors alive and safe until they could be transported to the hospital. The survivors included Preston Cavner, his wife, Stacie, their 2-year-old son, Hudson, and a baby-sitter, Rachel Ziempak. The Cavners' 4-year-old son, Miles, died in the crash.
The Airman's Medal, awarded for noncombat valor, is among the rarest medals given by the United States. According to military websites, only about 130 have ever been awarded since its creation in 1960.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing