37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron pilots honor fallen Airman

  • Published
  • By Capt. "Swankee"
  • 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron
Editor's note: Captains "Carp," "SIS," and "Salami" also contributed to this article. The crew wishes to only use their rank and call signs.

The 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron arrived in Southwest Asia in July. As one of the youngest members of the squadron, I found myself walking out the door on my first combat deployment with approximately 130 hours in the B-1B Lancer.

For this same reason, I was assigned to an experienced crew, and shortly after arriving, I was thrust into the world of combat aviation, flying missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. 

Our sortie on Sept. 12 was my 12th of the deployment and evolved into one that still resonates in the minds of the crew and our squadron. Each of the prior 11 sorties was a learning experience, in the sense that I was able to gain a better understanding of the general flow of theater operations, as well as the specific role that the B-1 fills. When we flew this sortie, I had approximately 280 hours in the B-1; more than half were combat hours.

A typical B-1 combat sortie lasts anywhere from 12 to 14 hours. A few of those hours are spent transiting to and from the area of operations, while the majority of the time is spent providing direct air support to ground units. The joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, is the primary liaison between the troops on the ground and the aircrew above. This individual directs how and when an air asset, like the B-1, will be used to augment ground forces. Today, the B-1 brings to the fight the ability to provide general friendly force over watch and support, enemy surveillance and reconnaissance, high-speed low-altitude displays of force, and if necessary, high altitude precision weapons employment.

During this particular sortie, we had been in country for about an hour when we received a tasking by the tactical controlling agency. We were instructed to support coalition troops engaged in a Troops in Contact situation, or TIC, with enemy forces in the vicinity of Bala Baluk, western Afghanistan. Not until the next day would I learn that we lost one of our own during this TIC.

We arrived on station and made contact with the JTAC on the ground. Upon checking in, he informed us the enemy was firing rocket propelled grenades and indirect small arms fire at friendly convoys moving through the area. Because it was extremely difficult to positively identify or to pinpoint specific origins of the hostile fire and to counter insurgent actions in the area, the JTAC requested we perform a high-speed, low-altitude show of force. Essentially, this procedure involves flying the B-1 over an area of interest in an attempt to deter further hostile actions from the enemy.

After flying this show of force, the JTAC informed us it was successful -- the small arms fire had ceased and the friendly forces were continuing to move. However, shortly thereafter, the enemy fire resumed and we flew a second show of force that once again provided a brief reprieve from hostilities.

As we kept talking with the JTAC, we heard gunfire in the background and we could see mortars and rockets being exchanged. Being my first combat deployment, this was certainly a moment where the gravity of the situation became readily apparent.

Once the JTAC was able to positively confirm the enemy firing position, he directed our weapons system officer to his location, only a few hundred feet away. The JTAC and the coalition forces with him had now become pinned down due to the intense fire. He requested we immediately drop two GBU-38s (guided 500-pound weapons) on the enemy firing position.

Moments later, the jet lurched with two quick thuds, much like the feel and sound two speed bumps would produce. Nearly a minute later, I saw two explosions outside my right window. 

"Good hits," the JTAC replied over the radio. "The firing has stopped ... keep your eyes on us!"

The moments between that sight and hearing the JTAC call "good hits" can be the longest few seconds one experiences. Dropping bombs close to the good guys -- those seconds in which time stands still -- between the bombs leaving the jet and hearing the good guys get back on the radio, machine guns in the background, fires, rockets, smoke -- it was all a bit of blur.

It was at once challenging and gut-wrenching, but also rewarding to know we were supporting our partners on the ground. The bombs provided our troops on the ground the opportunity to egress the area. That was the extent of our knowledge of the situation as we reached our minimum fuel and began to return to base.

Later we learned that Staff Sgt. Bryan Berky, a fellow Ellsworth Air Force Base Airman, had been involved in this engagement. Sergeant Berky was an explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to the 28th Civil Engineer Squadron. His job in Afghanistan involved protecting troops from planted bombs by investigating and dismantling them.

Sergeant Berky, among many other Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen, are those shouldering the heaviest burden of this conflict. They continually face the most direct threats, while simultaneously doing the difficult daily work aimed at securing stability for the people of Afghanistan.

I think I speak for the crew, as well as the entire 37th EBS, when I say it's an honor to support our ground forces. Specifically, our crew remains proud that an Ellsworth aircrew supported an Ellsworth Airman under duress. However, the tragic loss of Sergeant Berky in this engagement serves as a sobering reminder of how close to home this conflict can hit.

The family and friends of Sergeant Berky will be in our thoughts and prayers for both the remainder of this deployment and after, as we return home with one too few in our midst.