Left photo: Col. Jeffrey Paulson (right) flying a Blackhawk helicopter while deployed to Afghanistan with a Minnesota Medical Evacuation unit in 2011-’12. Right photo: James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center Nurse Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari (right) provides medical support while Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist Army Staff Sgt. Benjamin Summerfield (left) removes an unexploded rocket propelled grenade from the leg of Marine Cpl. Winder Perez.
A former Army National Guardsman who flew Black Hawk helicopters in Afghanistan will never forget the time they had a close encounter with an RPG.
While helicopter crews over combat zones often come in contact with Rocket Propelled Grenades, it isn’t often that one makes it into the cabin of the aircraft and crews live to tell about. But live they did, and saved a life in the process.
In the opening days of 2012, then-New Mexico Army National Guard pilot CW2 Jeffrey Paulson -who retired as a Colonel- was flying what seemed to be just one of many MEDEVAC missions he flew in his career. Having arrived in Afghanistan in the summer of the previous year, he had been flying out of the Northern Helmand province’s FOB Edinburgh in support of US Marine units.
While the Taliban generally don’t fight as much during the winter, the Coalition troop surge conducted at the time were keeping Marines in contact, which meant that MEDEVAC choppers were as busy as ever.
On the 12th of January, Paulson’s crew was dispatched to pick up a local national- a toddler who had been wounded by shrapnel- and take her to a Marine base for treatment. During their flight, a nearby Marine patrol had been ambushed with RPGs and small arms fire. During the encounter, one RPG managed to plant itself in the leg of 23-year-old New Yorker Corporal Winder Perez.
Desperate to evacuate their man, the Marines moved Perez to a safe(r) area and cleared a landing zone for “Dustoff” MEDEVAC units.
“As we got on final approach the radio operator (on the ground) got very excited,” Paulson said. “The tone had changed. That’s when we first heard the patient had unexploded ordnance. We’re still thinking we’re picking up this little girl, maybe a rifle shell was in her.”
Setting his aircraft down amidst the chaos, Paulson noticed the wounded Marine’s leg- complete with RPG.
When the medic noticed the RPG, co-pilot Major Kevin Doo asked the crew what they wanted to do.
“I think the medic said. ‘Well, the guy’s a Marine,” Paulson said. “It clarified to all of us, that’s what we’re here for. We put him on board.”
Knowing the RPG could go at any moment, the crew of the Dustoff helicopter were extra-cautious in their routine procedures as they darted towards an aid station nearly 70 miles away. Also exercising caution was their escort helicopter, which kept extra distance from Paulson’s bird.
While Paulson and Doo concentrated on flying the helicopter, they couldn’t help but feel glad they didn’t have to stare at the live rocket.
“I teased [the aircrew] that they had the hard part- they had to sit and stare at it en route,” Paulson said.
Upon what was described as one crew member as “one of the gentlest landings” he had ever been in, the crew had to coax a little time to come over and remove the Marine. Thanks to the help of a Navy nurse and an EOD technician, Perez was able to be treated and was later stabilized.
Paulson’s crew would later transport a now rocket-less Perez to another field hospital. During the flight, the ventilator failed and one of the crew had to -with exhausting physical effort- keep the Marine supplied with oxygen by manually pumping air into his lungs.
Perez would make a stop in Germany before being flown back to the US, where he would undergo surgeries for two years before being retired from the USMC. Today, he is an avid runner who owns his own restaurant.
For his actions that day, CW2 Paulson received an Air Medal with “Valor” device. Interestingly, Paulson was actually a Colonel at the time, but wanted to deploy and had convinced the State adjutant general and deputy Army adjutant general to convert his rank from Colonel to CW2.
“I just felt like it was a hole in my soul if I didn’t get on the other side of the line and go personally,” said Paulson, who was 56 years of age at the time. “I thought for sure I’d find someone older than me on the deployment but I never did.”