A little late on this one, but a great story nonetheless. Hooyah!
The HH-60G Pave Hawk carrying a wounded British soldier was about 10 minutes from its home base in southern Afghanistan when an explosion blasted through the back, tearing a hole into the aircraft.
Staff Sgt. John Hatzidakis, a pararescueman, was taking care of his patient when smoke filled the helicopter.
“Debris flew everywhere and hit me in the shoulder and head,” he said. “I covered my patient, rechecked him … and I let [the pilot] know it sounded like a big grenade went off in the back of the helicopter.”
Those on board didn’t know it at the time, but a rocket-propelled grenade had penetrated the back of the helicopter. Miraculously, Hatzidakis and everyone else on board escaped injury.
For his actions on that day, March 19, 2009, Hatzidakis earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He received the award during a ceremony April 18 at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where he is now assigned as an instructor at the pararescue/combat rescue officer indoctrination course.
Hatzidakis, 27, downplayed his actions.
“I was just doing my job,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I did something so courageous. I was just being me, what I was trained to do.”
Hatzidakis deployed to Afghanistan in January 2009. It was his third deployment, having already completed two tours in Iraq. He was based at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
It was late morning March 19 when Hatzidakis and his team were called to pick up a British soldier who had been shot in the right arm and was bleeding from his brachial artery. The crew also was to pick up a wounded Afghan who was believed to have been trying to plant an improvised explosive device.
As the crew picked up the two patients and was en route back to Camp Bastion, they were called to drop off the Afghan at Forward Operating Base Lashkar Gah instead.
It was when the helicopter took off again, from FOB Lashkar Gah, that it was hit. Everyone in the back of the helicopter was blown back by the blast, Hatzidakis said, and the entire cabin filled with white smoke.
“It smelled like burning something,” he said. “It just didn’t smell right.”
Unaware at first that an RPG had pierced the helicopter, Hatzidakis shielded his British patient with his body and then quickly checked himself and his teammate for injuries.
“I had a lucky day. I mean, everybody had a lucky day,” Hatzidakis said. “If [the RPG] had detonated a little bit earlier, everybody in the back would have been hit by a lot of shrapnel.”
Hatzidakis maintained communication with the pilots and informed them that there was a “giant hole” in the back of the helicopter, he said.
The hole where the RPG entered was almost 2 feet in diameter, while the opposite side of the aircraft had been peppered with shrapnel that covered an area almost 15 feet around, Hatzidakis said.
The explosion had crippled many systems in the helicopter’s transition bay but had not ruptured the fuel tanks, according to the citation accompanying Hatzidakis’ award.
The pilots decided to fly the Pave Hawk back to Camp Bastion — as slowly and low to the ground as possible.
“It felt like forever in my head,” Hatzidakis said. “But I had faith in the pilot. He said as long as we flew slow enough and low enough we’d make it home.”
As the crew flew the excruciating 15 to 20 minutes back to Camp Bastion, Hatzidakis continued to care for his patient and helped the flight engineer scan for additional enemy threats. The whole time, he said, thoughts of his wife, Jena, and family filled his mind.
“A lot of emotions go through your head,” he said. “I just wish it had never happened. It was not fun. I didn’t want to be there.”
Relief washed over Hatzidakis when the helicopter finally landed safely at Camp Bastion.
“I was happy to be out of the aircraft, but I was just a little frustrated that we weren’t able to see where [the RPG] came from or find out a location,” he said.
Despite the harrowing experience, Hatzidakis said he hopes to serve as a pararescueman for as long as he can.
“The main reason I wanted to be a PJ is because I thought the job was the coolest thing in the Air Force,” he said. “This is what I love to do.”