Only seven medals carry more significance than the Distinguished Flying Cross, and, of those, only three are given for combat excellence. One of those three is the Congressional Medal of Honor. In simpler terms–it’s a rare medal.
“This is an incredibly unique and rare event,” Lt. Col. Rick Mitchell, the Commander of the 303d FS, said in his opening comments. “Very rarely is the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded. Even more rarely is the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded twice in the same day to two members of the exact same fighter squadron.”
More than 200 family, friends and military members gathered at the award ceremony to honor the accomplishments of Maj. John “Sapper” Tice and Lt. Col. Tony “Crack” Roe.
Congress established this aerial award in 1926 to recognize any officer or enlisted member in the United States Armed Forces who distinguished himself or herself in support of operations by displaying heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.
Tice was awarded the medal for a mission he flew December 2, 2010, out of Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan.
On that day, his flight lead was Capt. Michael ‘Balz’ Stock, and they were tasked to support two Special Forces teams who were keeping watch over Army engineers as they built a bridge in the Helmand River Valley.
“The area was known for hostile Taliban fighters and they routinely came out to attack U.S. coalition forces,” said Mitchell.
At the beginning of the sortie, while keeping armed watch of the area, Tice located a Taliban scout, who was monitoring the position of friendly forces. He alerted the joint terminal attack controller whose job is to direct airstrikes and keep the ground and air forces in communication. Tice’s quick actions allowed Joint Special Forces to quickly neutralize the threat with internal assets.
Shortly thereafter, nearby Taliban fighters ambushed the ground forces with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine gunfire, and small arms fire.
“Within seconds, the fierce battle intensified,” said Mitchell as he read from the medal citation. “Without any hesitation, Tice descended into the tactical effective range of the small arms fire.”
Without regard for his own personal safety, Tice personally executed six low-altitude passes over the forces, precisely targeted Taliban fighters at four different fighting positions expending 1,140 rounds of 30 mm ammo from the A-10’s gun. As a result, he eliminated 32 enemy combatants with zero causalities to coalition forces, and saved the lives of 50 U.S. Marines, 24 U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers, and one U.S. Air Force Airman.
After Mitchell read the citation, Col. Mike Schultz, the 442d Fighter Wing Commander, presented the medal to Tice.
“I’m humbled to be amongst these two,” said Schultz. “I don’t feel quite adequate for even touching the medal. It’s that big of a deal. Sapper, Crack, brothers, well done.”
This moment would be a once-in-a-lifetime event for most pilots; however, for Roe, it became not his first, not his second, but his third DFC.
Retired Brig. Gen. James Mackey, a former 303d FS pilot and presenter for Roe’s medal, described the mission that led to his third award.
“I’m pretty proud to be standing up here,” said Mackey during the ceremony. “I was his wingman that day.”
Mackey described the different scenarios pilots might come across while deployed, going from the least challenging to the most. Each scenario involves ‘troops in contact’ which means ground forces are engaged with the enemy.
Troops in contact, danger close means the friendly forces are very close to enemy forces, making it more difficult for pilots to find a precise target. Often times, a joint terminal attack controller on the ground talks to the pilot to help with identifying the targets.
“When you go through the list it kind of shows which is more challenging,” said Mackey. “Troops in contact danger close with no JTAC to do all that, that’s a big deal.”
On June 5, 2008, Roe and Mackey flew out of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, tasked to support a resupply convoy in a mountainous area southeast of the base.
They spotted four vehicles on a north-south running road in a valley and a little further up the road where the road turned northwest, another set of four vehicles. At the time, the A-10 was the only aircraft capable of talking over the FM radio, a common frequency the U.S. Army used for communication.
With no JTAC on the ground, Roe tuned into the FM frequency and contacted the commander of the platoon who was in one of the four vehicles in the northwest. Later, they would learn that the four vehicles to the south were disabled when three of the four vehicles were hit by rocket propelled grenades.
“T. Roe asks, ‘can you mark the target?’” recalled Mackey. Shortly after, a smoke grenade lands on the hillside and rolls down next to the Army convoy engaged with the enemy. “Next thing we hear is, ‘do not shoot that smoke.’ We figured that out. A second mark goes up about two thirds up the ridgeline–that’s our target.”
Roe then coordinated with the platoon commander to ensure the friendlies were not in harm’s way. Roe declared the situation Emergency Close Air Support, assuming full responsibility for any attack and ordered everyone to go inside their vehicles.
Cleared to engage, he made his first pass with the A-10’s gun. The 30 mm rounds soared a little too far above their target indicating a critical targeting elevation system error.
“He recognized right away that his system that allows him to tell what the elevation was wrong, so he manually puts in the elevation,” said Mackey. “Next pass he unloads seven rockets about 40 meters away from the friendlies and they cease fire.”
The extensive, deadly firefight lasted over an hour and Roe’s precise, timely and accurate firepower saved the lives of 16 U.S. Army members. Before the pilots arrived, they were down to their last clip of ammunition with plans to charge the hill.
Eleven years later, a few of the soldiers have kept contact with the pilots who saved their lives that day. Two of whom, Mauricio Alejandro “Musta” Arias and Joseph “Buck” Parker of the 201st Engineering Brigade in Kentucky Army National Guard, were in the audience during the ceremony. At one point, Mackey asked them to stand to be recognized and the audience responded with a standing ovation.
Throughout the ceremony, the pilots highlighted the importance of all the Airmen who worked to make sure the aircraft were working that day so that they could focus on the guys on the ground.
“They had support from the entire team,” said Mitchell in his closing remarks. “If you’re sitting out there wondering if you make a difference– you do. The A-10 is an amazing aircraft, serviced by remarkable Airmen and is flown and deployed by remarkable attack pilots.”