The Chosen Few

Our very own President and Founder, Clayton Horney, has recently been featured in a new book.

Excerpt from The Chosen Few; One U.S. Paratrooper Company’s Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan, A 15-month Fight Ending in the Battle of Wanat:

Fifty miles south at a large U.S. airbase in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the crew of a pair of Blackhawk medevac helicopters had just finished a brisk game of whiffle ball on the tarmac when an alert came in for a rescue mission in the Waigal Valley.

The crews from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade were veteran combat flyers, medics and crew chiefs who had spent nearly a year in Afghanistan plucking wounded American and coalition troops off battlefields and delivering them to field hospitals. They flew the Skull and Crossbones over their headquarters at Jalalabad. Their most experienced pilot, Chris Ryan, a thoughtful, easygoing chief warrant officer 3, was marking his 35th birthday. He was a true child of military flight. His father was a retired airman and Chris was born in a military hospital on the grounds of Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. 

They were led by 27-year-old Army Capt. Clayton Horney, (pronounced Hore-NAY) who grew up in Tucson, Ariz., fell in love with helicopters and the adrenalin rush of air rescue when he was a high school senior and got an internship as a tag-along with a state police helicopter crew. While his classmates were earthbound, Horney was flying several times a week on observation and rescue missions. 

The senior flight medic was Staff Sgt. Peter Rohrs, who at 31 was older by a decade than many of the men he worked to keep alive during this his third combat deployment. Like others in the Army who grew up knowing they wanted one day to be a soldier or a pilot, Rohrs always wanted to be a medic. While others drew inspiration from cinematic portrayals of fighting men, Rohrs liked the tough, ever-caring “Doc,” consumed with ensuring the wounded came home, if not entirely in one piece, at least alive. His favorite movie as a boy, not unlike others who joined the Army, was Hamburger Hill, the true story of 1st Air Cavalry soldiers in Vietnam and their bloody battle for Hill 937 in 1969. Rohrs’ favorite character was the squad medic who was the emotional core of the unit. The character is so determined to keep the soldiers healthy that at one point he lines up new recruits armed with toothbrushes and barks instructions on proper oral hygiene. Rohrs was fascinated with these combat medics benighted with a crucial and solemn responsibility that set them apart from the other soldiers. They weren’t messed with because they took care of the other guys. His life in the Army took on all the trappings of that image especially over the last year, laboring He had treated hundreds of casualties that the medevac crews lifted off the battlefields of Afghanistan. Not only had he been deposited on battlefields under dangerous conditions to treat wounded soldiers and prepare them to be hoisted and evacuated, but he took considerable pains to teach other medics what he had learned and held them to high standards, conducting regular training sessions between missions. To the pilots who flew with him, Rohrs had assumed almost a larger-than-life persona. But nothing that he or Horney or Ryan or any of the others on their team had done before – or would do again–would match the harrowing experience they faced that night over the Waigal Valley. 

It was more than what they had bargained for when they first arrived in Afghanistan in January. Horney had served twice before in Iraq and he knew well the vagaries of deployment for flight crews and how, depending on what part of the war zone one was assigned, the experience could be months of tedium, where life assumed a Ground Hog Day rhythm of daily meals and exercise within the confines of a desert base. Horney loved the work when it was busy, but he always felt like there were pilots flying more interesting rescue missions somewhere else in the country. Now, as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, he was coming into a far different theater of war for medevac crews. The distances, mountains and weather made their job a lot tougher. In Iraq, the average time it took for a helicopter to retrieve a casualty from the battlefield was one hour. In Afghanistan, the average time was twice that. Not until late in 2008, when then-Defense Secretary Bill Gates learned of this discrepancy and demanded that it be corrected, did the American military deploy enough Blackhawk rescue helicopters to finally cut to an hour the time it took to deliver wounded soldiers to a hospital. When Clayton Horney and his men arrived to begin their tour of duty in Afghanistan in January 2007, medevac crews were still stretched thin – particularly with ramping up military forces in Iraq — and wounded soldiers still waited hours to reach an operating table. Horney and other platoon commanders were allowed to request where they wanted to work in the country. He wanted to be busy and his men agreed. So Horney When Clayton Horney arrived for his tour of duty, he pulled data on medevac missions across Afghanistan using as a metric the frequency of hoist missions. These are often the most hazardous assignments since they are, by definition, the rescue means of last resort when the wounded are so inaccessible in the mountains that the only way of collecting them is to pull them up by cable. He found that medevac missions flown into mountainous Kunar and Nuristan provinces out of the Jalalabad air base had the largest number of hoist missions and Horney requested his platoon be assigned there. No sooner did they arrive in January to replace crews attached to the 10th Mountain Division than they learned just how treacherous the missions could be. During the transition between the crews, when Horney and his men flew some missions with the 10th Mountain medevac crews, they saw how pilots would dodge and jink their way through narrow valleys to be hard targets for enemy gunmen. 

Far more sobering was the briefing they received about a hoist rescue from the previous year where the cable broke, sending a flight medic and a wounded soldier falling to their deaths. Even more tragic, the wounded G.I. who was killed – Private First Class Brian Bradbury — had earlier in the fight been the focus of a heroic, if fatal, retrieval effort by 10th Mountain Division Staff Sgt. Jared Monti. The 22-year-old Bradbury had been wounded early in a fight in a valley of eastern Nuristan Province near the Pakistan border and Monti had literally run across open ground to reach him before he was cut down by enemy fire. Monti, who was 30 years old, would later be awarded the Medal of Honor. The wounded Bradbury was later retrieved and when a medevac helicopter arrived, medic Craig Heathe, a staff sergeant, was lowered to the ground by cable to prepare Bradbury for the hoist. The crew chief above began extracting both of them together. But the hoist cable evidently started to swing during the mission, scraping up against the sharp edge of the Blackhawk helicopter floor so that the steel frayed until it finally came apart; Heathe and Bradbury perished. The Army later added a redesign feature to the aircraft, a rounded titanium strip over the floor edge to guard against this happening again. But the accident, when it was briefed to Horney and his men, was a gruesome lesson in how dangerous mountain rescues could be. It was one key reason why Horney pushed for his teams to conduct hoist training missions in the valleys near Jalalabad during their down time. Over and over, they would practice lowering and raising the hoist cable next to cliffs or in narrow valleys in the day or night, using night-vision goggles, all so that they could grow increasingly confident in steadying their seven-ton aircraft and using the hoist even when rotary blades were only several feet from a rock face. 

But the mission on this night was shaping up to be even tougher than what they had practiced. During the pre-flight briefing, Horney and Ryan recognized the location. Ryan, working with Rohrs, had pulled casualties out of Ranch House after the battle in August, and he knew well those knife-edged ridges and narrow canyons. Even worse, it would be a moonless night. Their night vision optics or NODs were a real asset, but the goggles operated by amplifying ambient light. Without even a sliver of moon in the sky and with high mountains obscuring many of the stars, the view through their NODs would be scintillated like a snowy image on a television screen. By the time they were wheels-up in Jalalabad heading out on the mission, the sun had already set.”

For the full story of these crews and the Chosen Few: