Capt. Brian Jordan: The USMC pilot who cheated death (updated)
WASHINGTON: Marine Corps UH-1Y pilot Capt. Brian Jordan was low on fuel when he heard a frantic plea. Two British soldiers had been hit by a Taliban Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and were at death’s door. It was June 21, 2012, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Jordan had had a busy week of flying missions when he learned that a small unit of British Grenadier Guards were pinned down under heavy enemy fire. They needed an urgent MEDEVAC.
There is no hesitation for what becomes an unplanned Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC). Jordan and his crew push through combat fire to help brothers-in-arms. These extraordinary warriors from different countries are thrown together as only combat can. We see valor we can never forget, nor underestimate its worth – the effects that are lifelong.
In their words, here’s what went down when U.S. and British forces raced for survival.
The set up.
Sacrifices, too numerous to count, free people from fear and enslavement in war-torn Afghanistan.
Helmand Province has long been considered the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. It is home to prolific poppy fields, Taliban, and the voracious IEDs the enemy uses to shape the battlefield. Beginning in 2001, responsibility for security is assumed by NATO, who takes the lead of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). IEDs quickly evolve to predominant lethal deterrents against coalition forces and their security and training objectives.
On June 21, 2012, U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter 1 and 2 conduct reconnaissance of surrounding compounds of interest, while British ground forces patrol known enemy positions along the Helmand River.
Piloting an AH-1W Cobra two-seater attack helicopter, is Lt. Col. Stephen Lightfoot, section leader, with his co-pilot and gunner Capt. Frank Jablonski. Flying with them is a UH-1Y Huey tactical helicopter, piloted by Capt. Brian Jordan. Five crew are on board, including co-pilot Capt. Joshua Miller, Crew Chief GySgt. Andrew Bond, door gunner SSgt. Steven Seay, and door gunner LCpl. Joshua Martinez. All are with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469 (HMLA-469) based at Camp Bastion in Helmand.
The Taliban do not like troop mobility, able to penetrate far and deep into their territory.
Platoon Sgt. Carl Shadrake is a British Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards. The Guards go in as Helicopter Attack Force (HAF), move from compound to compound to achieve their objectives, then airlift out. The goal is short term stays in areas that have not seen military presence for 7-8 years.
Shadrake has orders to block the Taliban from moving west, while a large deployment of Afghan National Army pushes west to clear the area.
Gereshk is a town in Nahri Saraj District on the Helmand River in Afghanistan – the center of a rich agricultural region which includes opium production. On June 21, Shadrake and his unit of ten Guards track an enemy sniper near Gereshk. Jordan and Lightfoot fly overhead, providing a 360 degree umbrella of security that equals a tenacious, unforgiving arsenal of firepower.
Each day, one step could be your last; the courageous weather on.
In May 2019 Congressional Research Service reported, “Since 2006, approximately 1,975 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan. Nearly half (46%) of all these military deaths are attributable to IEDs and their variants…their greatest toll between 2009 and 2012.”
Information comes to Shadrake through ‘Eyes in the Sky’ via his Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground. They are told an armed man is digging in an IED across from their compound location. A Guardsman sniper shoots the man and Shadrake mobilizes his men to intercept the Taliban casualty evacuation party, as well as retrieve forensics and weaponry from the downed insurgent.
The Guards travel down a hard-packed Wadi (ditch) path towards another cluster of compounds where the body lies. Guardsman Ed Wyatt recalls an insurgent in the wood line roughly 70 meters from the Wadi that began peppering the air with rifle fire, which he, and his “mates” covering him from the Wadi, return.
“Eyes in the Sky’ tells Shadrake the Taliban party arrived and moved the body. Thick foliage and trees deny the Guards a good line of sight of the compound ahead. Two two booby traps in the Wadi slow their advance.
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They arrive at the location where the Taliban was shot and see a shovel and hole, a head scarf covered in blood, and drag marks.
The cadaver lies directly behind the compound, and it was as if a tractor beam pulls them towards it to complete the mission. They head to the cluster of compounds, and after clearing them, find them empty.
“Round the far side of the compound had a horrible feel to it – and into the next set of ditches. We set up an all-around defense and searched for the cadaver,” says Wyatt. “Air support gave [us] what direction they could.”
Chaos ramps up.
Lightfoot, piloting the Cobra gunship, prepares to tell the British JTAC they are at “bingo”, the minimum amount of fuel required to safely return them to base. Then, both Lightfoot and Jordan witness a ground explosion west of a compound along the Helmand River. Lightfoot wonders if the Guardsmen set off a controlled detonation. Troops do that when they find explosives on deck, preventing any future enemy use.
Jordan orders UH-1Y co-pilot Miller to maneuver their aircraft into position, to gain a better look. Jordan slews (positions) the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensor to locate the friendlies on the ground. “It was apparent the situation was not good,” says Jordan. Now friendly forces receive direct and indirect fires from near compounds. Machine gun fire targets both aircraft overhead.
An IED is a homemade bomb used by guerrillas, insurgents, and other nonstate actors as a crude but effective weapon against a conventional military force…IEDs aimed at killing or injuring personnel can be made of ball bearings, nails, artillery or mortar rounds, aerial bombs, certain types of fertilizers, TNT, radiological, chemical, or biological components. Some IEDs have shaped-charge warheads that create streams of molten metal that can penetrate armor.
Click here for more on IEDs.
A sleeping fire monster.
On approach to the cadaver, Shadrake and Wyatt see the sand around the compounds baked and hard. The threat of IED seems obscure. Threats loom from compounds in the distance that have a direct line of sight at them, so they head back towards the Wadi. No ground sign of anything signals IED.
Wyatt describes a razor edge of fate, “the entry point we chose was sodden and covered in footprints. I stepped to turn around a wall before entering…My left foot…stood on the crux of my life.”
Wyatt stepped on the hidden IED. “My senses were assaulted, saturated. A noise I can’t describe assaulted my ears,” says Wyatt. “My world was a grey-brown one of dust. It took to me a lifetime to realize what had happened. It dawned terribly.”
Wyatt is flung in the air doing somersaults, and lands like “an upturned turtle on his day sack.” Shadrake, behind him, catches some of the frag.
Shadrake sees Wyatt’s injuries before his own.
Shadrake is blown backwards, becomes winded. He tries to sit up and assess and quickly radios his team they’re involved in an IED hit. He knows Wyatt is injured, but doesn’t know how much. Then he sees Wyatt is missing one leg.
For Wyatt, “I held my hands before my face, blackened; my fingers shredded. I couldn’t tell glove from skin, flesh from bone… tried to reach a tourniquet in the pocket of my upper left arm. I don’t believe I managed to get it. There was a demon made of fire consuming my legs. I screamed…everything after that is patchy.”
Shadrake calls for a medic who puts two tourniquets on what was left of Wyatt’s legs.
His second in command applies a dressing on Shadrake’s arm, bleeding. They are close to the fallen body and Shadrake suspects they will get ambushed. He wants air support as long as they can get it, but equally, is aware the American helicopters overhead need to go back to Bastion for fuel.
From air support to urgent CASEVAC.
Lightfoot calls down on the radio and the previously calm British JTAC, in obvious duress, screams, “We’ve been hit, we’ve been hit.” The Cobra and Huey fly in for a closer look.
Jordan hears the JTAC say, “Man down, man down, request immediate MEDEVAC.”
Lightfoot on the radio says to Jordan,
“I need you to call for a MEDEVAC helicopter and let me know how long it’s going to take.”
Lightfoot then informs the JTAC they are calling in help from headquarters. Jordan utilizes his sensors to maintain situational awareness.
It’s approximately an 18 min flight to Bastion where there is a hospital. It will take more time for a MEDEVAC helicopter to mobilize from there, pick them up, stabilize the wounded, and fly back. Shadrake radios to his team that they have one seriously wounded and one walking wounded – and asks for a lift.
Explosion triggers a fiery enemy attack.
At a very low fuel state, Jordan and Lightfoot are aware of a badly-deteriorating situation for the Guardsmen unit under fire, with unknown additional IEDs. Jordan receives word back from Camp Bastion and radios to LtCol. Lightfoot it will be 20-25 minutes before a MEDEVAC can reach the Guards.
Once informed, the British JTAC replies, “That’s not going to work. This guy is dying right now. His legs are blown off. You’ve got to help me out, here.”
Jordan responds to the urgency in the JTAC’s voice. He is Wyatt’s only hope as his aircraft is the only one of the two with room. He and his crew quickly discuss the best course of action with time and urgency beating down on them. The decision is made without a moment’s delay.
Urgent response and descent.
A report published in “Aircraft Survivability” in summer 2010 gave a total of 375 U.S. helicopters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan up to 2009. June is a haunting month, remembering the 2005 rescue mission to pick up four SEALs under attack by the Taliban in eastern Kunar province, Afghanistan. Sixteen Navy SEALs and Army special operations troops were killed when their helicopter was shot out of the sky. In 2011, thirty-one U.S. special operation troops (most from Navy SEAL team Six) and seven Afghan commandos were downed in a military helicopter flying in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed the strike.
Jordan identifies a hasty landing zone (LZ) within 30 meters of the wounded Guardsmen, with the least probability of IED emplacement and maximum concealment from enemy firing on them from the north. Anything can derail the mission – IEDs, an engine flame out, people shot. Or a Black Hawk down scenario, where it is unlikely U.S. troops can rescue before the Taliban overcomes them. The pick-up has to be precise.
The JTAC relays to Shadrake that a helicopter is landing and that they need to make some room. They move Wyatt and Shadrake to position. Shadrake’s arm is bleeding, his face stinging – yet adrenaline pulsing through his body tricks him into thinking he is ok. He thinks he’ll go back to Bastion, get his wounds cleaned out and be sent out again.
For Wyatt only minutes remain.
Lightfoot gets Jordan’s ingress heading so he can be in a position to protect. He provides suppressive 20mm fires to the north while Jordan descends, directing his co-pilot to the south along the Helmand River towards the hasty LZ. The helicopter’s first attempt to land is waved off, because the Guardsmen aren’t ready.
One more try was all the fuel Jordan could spare.
Jordan had his crew man the GAU-17 minigun on the right as he places his aircraft east to west with the friendlies, between the hasty LZ and the threat. During the descent, they experience a significant brown-out from the dust. Jordan’s air crew guides them through the last 25 feet to landing, calling out altitude and position.
The Brits blaze a path to the rescue point, carrying Wyatt, with his legs blown off, on a stretcher. Shadrake, whose torso is riddled with shrapnel, is walking/running wounded with his men, not thinking he will get on.
Race on to defeat the IED death wish.
With less than 60 total seconds on deck, they load both critically wounded Wyatt and Shadrake into the cabin and are lifting off – destination LZ Nightengale, Bastion Hospital.
In the helicopter Wyatt complains about pain in his leg, and tells Shadrake he is struggling to breathe. Shadrake knows they gave him morphine on the ground. Shadrake tightens up one of Wyatt’s tourniquets, because there is blood still coming out. Wyatt is still overcome with horrendous pain.
“My head was lolling off the back of the stretcher as we flew,” recalls Wyatt. “I had frag in my eyes. No sight – only dark memories. I couldn’t breathe; my body armor was crushing my already-winded body. I implored my platoon sergeant – I implored anyone to help me breathe,” says Wyatt.
It dawns on Shadrake the extent of his own injuries, battered and bruised, unable to open a zip pocket and retrieve morphine. With help from the door gunner, Shadrake gives Wyatt a second hit of morphine. He takes Wyatt’s body armor off – and Wyatt sucks in a massive gasp of air that he clearly needed. Wyatt’s stretcher lay across the helicopter floor, with Shadrake on his left side, who notes with emotion,
“Wyatt stuck up his right hand to hold my hand… and I could see he had quite a few fingers missing.”
Shadrake strives to keep Wyatt’s brain active – Wyatt remains conscious throughout.
The Golden Hour.
The period of time following a traumatic injury during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical and surgical treatment will prevent death is the Golden Hour.
Jordan lands at LZ Nightengale in approximately 15 minutes, well inside the Golden Hour. He previously communicated with all outside agencies prior to landing. Hospital personnel put Wyatt in an ambulance for the short drive to the medical center.
Shadrake starts out of the helicopter and feels a massive pain in his stomach. He is coaxed into a wheelchair and encounters an old friend, medic Sam Wilding, at the hospital door.
Aghast, Wilding asked, “Oh my God, Carl, what are you doing getting blown up again?”
In 2007, Shadrake was in a two-vehicle convoy, also in Gereshk, when a suicide bomber drove up and blew himself up. Shrapnel slit Shadrake’s throat, cutting his windpipe, but it didn’t get the artery straightaway. It wasn’t until he got to the hospital and took a sip of water that the artery gave way and bled out. Medical staff pumped him full of “the red stuff’ and brought him back to life.
Forward ahead to 2012, the shrapnel drives underneath Shadrake’s body armor where it stops at the belt level. Surgeons perform a laparotomy to take it out. Some frag blows in and out his left bicep, and makes a big hole. His lip and the tip of his nose are hanging off. His face is sandblasted.
Wyatt loses both legs at the knee, sustains a broken hip, and significant shrapnel to his lower torso. At Bastion Hospital nine surgeons operate on him for four hours. Both Shadrake and Wyatt are stabilized and medically extracted to the UK for further treatment.
Aftermath: Recognition and gratitude.
Capt Brian Jordan has no idea if either one of the two Grenadier Guards survived. After he dropped them off, they still had more missions to fly. He is upset he didn’t get to meet them, yet happy when he finds out they are stable and alive.
Two days after the CASEVAC mission, Jordan receives a thank-you letter from British Lieutenant General Doug Chalmers, Commander Task Force Helmand. He expresses his “sincere and utmost gratitude”, ending with, “This action demonstrated the complete commitment of you and the United States Marine Corps to do whatever is necessary to help those who matter most. The value of that cannot be measured.”
Jordan is also recognized by USMC Major General Charles M. Gurganus, Commander, Regional Command, Southwest RC (SW), part of ISAF. Gurganus approves an Air Medal Citation “For heroic achievement”…lauding Jordan’s “superior airmanship, perseverance, and loyal devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions…”
IED injury has a stranglehold.
In the UK, when a solider is wounded enough to require a medical discharge – they are moved to a Personal Recovery Unit (PRU) at Defence Medical Rehabilitation Center (DMRC) Headly Court, a rehabilitation center for British members of the Armed Forces. They are met with a specialized team to help heal and guide down a new career path.
Doctors remove the shrapnel out of Shadrake’s stomach, but he still suffers with ‘pepper dash’ – little stones or large grains of sand that still come out of his skin, particularly on his legs. His shoulder, scapula are damaged and he spends 4 months trying to rehabilitate his arm. He has limited use of his left arm to this day.
Jamie, Shadrake’s younger brother, was also in Afghanistan in his same unit. The Army flew him back to visit his brother in the hospital. Jamie was there the day he was medically discharged from the Army. Six weeks after Jamie returned to Afghanistan, he was shot and killed.
Dark times shadow Shadrake as he continues his rehabilitation. When Jamie was killed, he was angry with the world and blamed himself, the Army, the Taliban – everyone. He was vocal and aggressive.
Today Shadrake says, “I’m not bitter about anything. It’s defined me on who I am today…Yes, there are things I would change…actually, I’ve learned a lot from it.. I’m a lot happier in my own skin.”
Two years after the June CASEVAC, in 2014, Shadrake’s wife, Angie, comes across a news article. ‘That’s my husband’s story’, she says to herself. It is about an American pilot that is receiving a British flying medal because he’d helped British soldiers.
The news about Capt. Jordan comes out – he being one of only two U.S. Marine aviators to receive the British Distinguished Flying Cross since World War II. This equates to receiving a U.S. Silver Star Medal. This third generation pilot is honored on Feb 12, 2014, at the British embassy in Washington, with a rare award for saving the lives of two British soldiers, while under enemy mortar and machine gun fire.
Angie wants to thank Jordan and emails the news article publisher who passes on her contact info. Two weeks later –Angie gets a reply, “Hi, I’m Brian.” Jordan says he is coming to the UK to compete in Iron Man Staffordshire.
Last year, Shadrake and Wyatt flew to the U.S. to attend Jordan’s wedding to Danielle. Recently, Jordan and Danielle and Shadrake and Angie spent time vacationing in Rome together. This U.S. Marine and British Grenadier Guard, sealed by chilling combat, still talk about June 21, discussing ‘what ifs’ and ‘what has become’.
Inspired by Jordan – Carl began to train.
Shadrake competed in his first half Iron Man in 2017 and did four half Iron Man and two full Iron Man races in his first full season. He finished 23rd in Great Britain and 231st in the world. At the time of this publishing, he will just have competed in Iron Man Cork, Ireland.
He volunteers with Help the Heroes as an ambassador for the largest charity for Armed Forces in Great Britain. And speaks at venues on overcoming dark times and adversity and “how there is life after injury.”
Capt. Jordan was promoted to Major and is still an active-duty Marine and flying, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
What must we do to defeat the demon device that is not going anywhere?
The IED is the technologically-preferred weapon of choice. IEDs are a global problem as terrorists are not confined to one country, but spread across borders. We must attack the network, stop the flow, and train the forces for IED-ridden territory.
“The only way to beat the IED network is to be as innovative and responsive as the network itself…In many ways the global spread of IEDs is the largest peace-keeping challenge to the UN in modern times. And the UN itself will have to be innovative if it wants to take up this challenge.” From Action On Armed Violence.
Featured Image: WASHINGTON DC, Feb 12, 2014. British Distinguished Flying Cross presented to Capt. Brian Jordan for 'exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy in the air'. Jordan is one of two U.S. aviators to receive this award since WWII. U.S. Marine Corps photo Sgt. Justin M Boling/released