Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 50 seconds.
If one could get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from reading an Afghanistan war memoir, I would have to steer you away from Dustoff 7-3, the latest such nonfiction tome to hit the bookshelves. PTSD aside, you should be okay, once Black Hawk pilot Erik Sabiston gets your frazzled feet back safely on the ground.
Having detailed the heroism of Army medevac Dustoff crews flying unarmed Hueys in Vietnam, I was keen to read about the exploits of the 10th Mountain Dustoff, pulling duty in Afghanistan. Written by a chief warrant officer, this action-packed, 225-page war diary reaffirms Dustoff’s honored tradition of retrieving battle casualties from the front lines — day or night.
It is June of 2011, and as Sabiston tells us, the “Fighting Season” has returned to Kunar Province in northeastern Afghanistan. Strung out in and among Pakistan’s porous border, Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents have rearmed, dug in, and established “killing zones.”
Author Erik Sabiston flying a UH-60 Black Hawk during operations in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Erik Sabiston
Operations “Hammer Down” and “Strong Eagle” were the allied response to an infusion of enemy fighters into The Valley of Death, as the infantry calls the Watapur. Notorious for its steep pine-and-boulder-strewn terrain, there are seldom any landing zones. The Dustoffs are forced to hover high over each incident and winch down a flight medic or a batch of critically need medical supplies.
The author describes the enemy hiding in the rocks as “True Believers.” Armed with RPGs, they are there for the long haul, and live for one clean shot at a hovering helicopter. Dustoff crews know all too well that the bold red and white crosses on their fuselages give the ambushers something colorful to aim at.
When their sister ship, “Dustoff 7-2,” is shot up trying to retrieve a wounded soldier, Dustoff 7-3 becomes the only remaining hope for a platoon of the 25th Infantry. Day and night, one rescue after another, calls for help were radioed to the Cavalry’s medivac base. Between dispatches, Sabiston’s fellow pilot Kenny Broadhead would remind his weary crew, “We have to be at our best when that other guy is at his worst.”
The crew of DUSTOFF 7-3, from left: Crew chief Spc. David Capps, flight medic Sgt. Julia Bringloe, pilot CW4 Kenny Brodhead, and pilot CW2 Erik Sabiston. Photo courtesy of Erik Sabiston
The demands made upon these crews were simply phenomenal. Hovering with night vision goggles in an inky dark environment, with howling winds above treacherous terrain, they struggled to hold their position while a courageous flight medic motored up and down on a jungle penetrator — all this during a live firefight.
At times, Sabiston admits, a Dustoff pilot feels like he’s locked into the cockpit of the Black Hawk, which in the Watapur’s scorching heat is like “a big vibrating sauna.” Fighting off built-up fatigue, “constant radio chatter can batter your brain to mush on a long mission.”
In lighter moments, three warrant officers in Sabiston’s platoon formed what he describes as “a mutual aggravation society” called the “Trifecta of Anger.” This was done to support one another other “and annoy everybody else.” As icy-veined Dustoff pilots, they pledged to operate under a relaxed tone, to present a “façade of calm.”
To those who might question Dustoff’s straightforward resolve, Sabiston reminds his readers that one serves “not for fame or reward, nor lured by ambition or goaded by necessity, but in simple obedience to duty.” This selfless decree is inscribed on a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
Mark Twain famously said that if you “do the thing you fear most… the death of fear is certain.” And dealing with fear is at the heart of this important memoir (Sabiston confides that he harbors a longstanding fear of heights). A brave, cool hand behind the stick by necessity, Sabiston also writes astutely, cutting his deck of drama-riddled “cards” with slices of wry humor and true-life human interest. In doing so, he deals a winning hand.
Dustoff 7-3: Saving Lives Under Fire in Afghanistan, published by Warriors Publishing Group, is now available.