An Alaska Air National Guard pararescue jumper was presented with a Silver Star at a ceremony on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Friday.
Master Sgt. Roger D. Sparks received America's third-highest award for conspicuous valor in combat for his actions during a battle in Afghanistan on Nov. 14, 2010. Sparks and fellow PJ Capt. Koaalii Bailey flew into the Watapur Valley expecting to extract two wounded soldiers when "they were engulfed in a firestorm," said Air Guard Maj. Joe Conroy in remarks to the crowd assembled at JBER's Arctic Warrior Events Center.
Bullets buzzed and rockets exploded around them as they descended 40 feet by cable from a hovering helicopter.
"I thought we had three seconds to live," Sparks recalled.
On the ground, the PJs found the Army unit in a state of shock, surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned. Several men were dead and the number of wounded was much higher than they'd been told. The helicopter quickly spent its ammunition and left the area to rearm, leaving the medics behind.
Sparks and Bailey essentially took over command of the fight for "six intense hours," Conroy said. They called in close strikes to push back the enemy while they scrambled to help the injured and organized the evacuation.
Sparks' citation reads: "Despite continued enemy fire and with no concern for his personal safety, Sergeant Sparks immediately performed lifesaving measures for nine wounded soldiers. He feverishly triaged chest wounds, punctured lungs, shattered hips, fist-sized blast holes, eviscerated stomachs and arterial bleeders with limited medical supplies and only the light of the moon."
Not until the last of the wounded were airlifted out along with the bodies of the fallen did Sparks finally leave the scene.
Mother of all firefights
The nearly four years that have passed since Operation Bulldog Bite have been "quite a whirlwind," Sparks said. "I've been flown around talking to different teams about what happened."
His bullet-scarred jacket and the rocket-nicked cable that lowered him into the melee are now in the National Archive in Washington, D.C.
After returning to Alaska, the former Marine said he experienced nightmares. "I mentioned it, just to have it on the record," he said. But the military, concerned about PTSD, removed him from flying status.
"I had to fight a lot of stigma," he said. "I spent two and a half years dealing with the Army structure. I had to go talk to the head-shrinkers (at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Medical Center) in Ohio."
While there he connected with the families of fallen soldiers he treated during the battle. He was also contacted by men whose lives he'd saved.
One of those men, civilian contractor Karl Beilby of California, spoke at the ceremony.
Beilby said he'd been in the field with "three days of intense fighting, pretty much nonstop" when the Nov. 14 confrontation erupted. His group of 21 men was unprepared for the ferocity of the attack that came from all directions and the number of enemy fighters, estimated to have been in the hundreds.
"I've been in many firefights," he said. "This was the mother of all firefights."
Beilby was badly wounded and in pain. "I remember lying on the ground and looking up at this very, very tall guy," he said, referring to Sparks.
"It takes a tremendous amount of courage to go down a rope into a firefight like that," Beilby said. "I came here to thank Roger and his team who, without a doubt, saved my life."
Getting to know the survivors or the parents of men killed has been a fulfilling experience, Sparks said.
"We PJs never get to meet the guys and their families," he said. "We don't know what's going on before we get there or what happens after we get them out. All you know is that you're going into this meat grinder and it's someone's worst day ever."
Sparks' commanders recommended him for a major medal shortly after the battle, but the process ground to a halt for most of a year. "It had become administratively difficult to make things happen," said Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Mike Bridges.
When Verdi Bowen, the director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, inquired about the status of the award he found that things were not moving. "I met with Gen. Bridges and (National Guard Adjutant Gen. Thomas) Katkus and we agreed this is not right."
Bowen became the point man to get the ball rolling again. "To do a medal like this you have to do a lot of investigation," he said. Official records were reviewed. Private investigators were hired to find witnesses, "which wasn't easy," Bowen said.
It took another two years before the nomination for the medal was finalized and submitted for a second time in March of this year. It wasn't just to honor Sparks, Bowen said.
"It's not for the individual, it's for the esprit de corps of the whole unit. And it's not very common."
The military keeps no record of how many Silver Stars are awarded. Different estimates suggest between 100 and 150 per year since 1918, but that includes the World War II, Korea and Vietnam conflicts. The Air Force is thought to have handed out no more than a couple of dozen in the post-9/11 era. They are specifically given for action against an enemy force and thus largely restricted to branches of the service engaged in direct combat.
"They're incredibly rare for the Guard," said Bridges.
Sparks said he didn't like being the center of attention but feels the medal itself is important "because it brings attention to the event, the amount of loss. The medal count of that flight is staggering." An unofficial tally of medals awarded to airmen and soldiers involved in the engagement includes two Bronze Stars with V and three other Silver Stars.
Inking for healing
Directly after the fight, when the PJs returned to their duty station, they were met by a documentary filmmaker who had no idea what they'd just gone through. He said he'd brought Scott Campbell, a famous tattoo artist from New York, who offered to ink them free of charge.
Sparks decided it was a good day to get a tattoo. The experience was cathartic, he said.
"I couldn't shake the feeling, the intangible healing effect it had on me."
Since returning to Alaska he has taken up tattooing in a serious way. His wife, Jennifer, got him a kit and he learned the ropes at local tattoo parlors.
"It's become my way of dealing with moving forward," he said. "Painting, drawing, tattooing. I think I'm trying to re-create that healing effect."
He's started his own business — Cathartic Ink.
He was returned to flight status in the fall of 2012. Almost immediately, his unit was called to rescue the wife of a trapper in the Brooks Range who had a potentially fatal abdominal blockage. Sparks was in the escort plane accompanying the helicopter carrying the emergency gear and medics. But before reaching the destination, the helicopter developed mechanical problems and had to stay on the ground in Fairbanks.
The plane continued to the location. Guided by a flare set by the trapper, Sparks and one other PJ parachuted without cold-weather gear. "It was cold and dark and very quiet," he said. "We landed on either side of the trapper, about four feet to his left and right. He looked at us, just astonished, and said, 'Do you guys do this a lot?'"
Sparks lives in Eagle River with his wife and two sons, Orion and Ozrik, all of whom were present for the ceremony. Also in the audience were his father, Roger, and mother, Ann, who flew up from Watauga, Texas.
Sparks is approaching 20 years in the service and plans to retire soon. But first he has another deployment coming at the end of this month. "We're going to the Horn of Africa," he said. "About half of our guys are already there."
Members of Sparks' 212th Rescue Squadron presently deployed watched the ceremony by satellite from their quarters in Djibouti on the Red Sea.