Bone-34 crew helped end 2012 Afghan insurgent attack from 20,000 feet

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Charles V. Rivezzo
  • 7th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: This is part one of a five-part series highlighting the B-1 Bomber aircrew who was awarded the 2012 Gen. Curtis E. LeMay Outstanding Bomber Aircrew Award.)

Insurgents were moving freely through the remote mountain passes in Afghanistan. Spring had descended, bringing warmer weather and increasing the chances of contact with friendly forces.

Still early on in their deployment, the B-1 aircrew of captains Jeremy Stover, Dustin Willard and then first lieutenants Anthony Rocco and Travis Keene, settled in for their transit into Afghanistan, traversing the barren desert that lay below.

Designated as Bone-34, the mixed aircrew of seasoned and rookie operators had yet to engage in any kinetic strikes throughout their deployment, as the majority of their missions thus far were simply providing overwatch for convoys and units on the ground.

"Most of the time when you're in the desert, there's nothing going on," Rocco said. "You'll spend hours watching the desert camels walk by."

"Except there are no camels, although it would be cool if there were," injected Keene.

However, on April 15, 2012, that would all change, and the mission flown by Bone-34 that day would ultimately be written in the history books of bomber lore.

After crossing into Afghan airspace, Bone-34 heard chatter over their radio communications, receiving instructions to break-off from their initial assignment to assist a remote forward operating base whose troops were bogged down by a high-rate of incoming small-arms fire.

For the B-1 Bomber, which routinely jets the breadth of Afghanistan in a single sortie, arriving overhead of coalition forces was almost immediate.

"When we arrived on scene, it was a pretty standard mission for us," said Stover, the senior weapons system officer on-board. "The JTAC on the ground relayed us the coordinates of enemy positions while we monitored the activity from above on our sniper pod. We ended up dropping a single JDAM on the designated location, and instantly enemy fire and movement ceased to exist."

As the dust settled around the target area, nothing but silence remained. The bomber stayed overhead after the strike, loitering at approximately 20,000 feet above the battlefield to conduct a damage assessment.

A high-priority request made its way across their radio frequency, this time coming all the way from the top of command and control officials and taking precedence over any prior mission assignment.

To the far east of their location, multiple special operation units and soldiers from the Afghan National Army were responding to a complex insurgent attack on the National Directorate of Security Headquarters building when chaos broke out, and waves of heavy enemy fire radiated from a fortified three-story building adjacent to their location.

With the entry-ways booby trapped, Taliban fighters barricaded themselves in the basement of the building, using it as a reinforced firing position to launch attacks on friendly forces.

"After receiving the call, we were all a bit nervous about this area because it was so heavily populated," Rocco said. "Preventing collateral damage is always one of our highest priorities, but we had guys on the ground taking casualties and we all knew immediate action needed to be taken."

The bomber arrived on-station, linking up with a JTAC on the ground and an A-10 Thunderbolt II that had been providing overwatch prior to the bomber's arrival. But, as darkness fell on the city, so did the fog of war, as competing voices of information filled the airwaves.

"We started to receive target information from the JTAC as he relayed us coordinates to the building we were instructed to strike," Keene said. "At the same time, the A-10 and another air asset on-scene lased the building below, giving us a direct line of sight with our sniper pod's laser spot tracker."

However, things weren't matching up and the target they had been given to strike didn't fit the description they were given from their counterparts on the ground and in the air.

"The easiest thing for a bomber crew is to just drop a weapon, that's the easy part," Stover said. "But recognizing when things aren't making sense and being able to take a step back is what we are trained on. It's never easy when your guys on the ground are yelling and calling for support, but it's imperative you maintain that tactical patience.

"You always have to balance the urgency in the JTACs voice with what is going-on on the ground. There's a difference of being at 20,000 feet and not down in the weeds, it's difficult for them because they need those weapons now, because they're being shot at. But at the end of the day, the aircrew has the bomb and has to make the right decision of whether or not to drop."

The push of a button can save lives, but it can also take them away. They had to be sure. Not feeling complete confidence in the exact target location, the crew of Bone-34 elected to wait.

The aircrew was then forced to break-off from its orbital rotation of the target area for an aerial refuel, but remained in constant contact with the ground units.

The intense battle raged on for hours, as coalition forces prepared for a final assault on the heavily fortified structure, utilizing heavy weapons mounted on their vehicles in a final attempt to take control of the situation.

Met by overwhelming firepower, insurgents responded with a wave of machine gun fire, grenades and the detonation of a suicide vest.

The fully loaded bomber parted from the tanker, grabbing as much fuel as they could to support the mission. Upon their return to the target location, the Thunderbolt had left the area due to fuel concerns of its own, leaving the bomber as the sole aerial asset that could effectively reach the entrenched Taliban fighters.

After re-establishing contact with the embattled JTAC, the crew of Bone-34 was able to confirm positive identification of the correct target building. Using their infrared sensors, they could see the telltale flashes of gunfire and plumes of smoke from the detonation of the suicide vest.

Coming in for a high-speed pass and weapons drop, Bone-34 lost all radio communication with their counterparts on the ground, aborting any drop from taking place.

"Due to numerous structures obscuring the communications flow, we used a separate air asset to relay communications between us and our guys on the ground," Keene said. "We needed the area to be sanitized of any friendly forces or civilians who may have still been in the blast radius."

Clearance was now given to strike the building and friendly forces had positioned themselves out of the immediate blast zone. Two 500-pound JDAMs with delayed detonation would penetration the fortified basement.

The weapons were released within milliseconds of each other, timed perfectly to create a bunker-busting type effect. The ground shook as a pressure wave pushed outward, throwing a wall of dust and rock into the surrounding area. Silence fell over the crew.

A crackle from the radio broke the dead air, "Bone-34 good effect with bombs, firing has ceased, continue to scan and remain overhead. Mission successful."

It wasn't until months later, that it became clear to the crew of Bone-34, just how important their efforts were on that day. Their tactical patience and precise actions destroyed a large-scale Taliban weapons cache, comprised of multiple rifles, explosives and suicide vests, saving the lives of hundreds of American warfighters.

But to them it was just another day, protecting their fellow troops on the ground as the guardian in the sky.

"There is no question in my mind that any other crew would have executed as we did that day," Willard said. "We just happened to be on the schedule to fly that particular time, of that particular day. What means the most to me is that we were able to make sure that the troops on the ground made it home safely that night, that is the only reward we need."

(Bone-34 was named the Air Force's 2012 bomber crew of the year for the April 2012 mission and was awarded with the Air Force Association's Gen. Curtis E. LeMay Award.)