The afternoon of May 3, 2010, was supposed to be relatively restful and relaxing for the service members at Forward Operating Base Kalagush located in Eastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province.
Some were getting ready for dinner, while others were working out in the gym or calling their loved ones at home. Staff Sgt. Steven Doty, Provincial Reconstruction Team Nuristan’s combat photographer, was huddled inside the base’s joint operations center processing imagery he had photographed throughout the week.
That’s when he heard the unmistakable “thump, thump, thump” of an approaching helicopter flying through the valley. Since there were no more scheduled helicopter arrivals for the day, the noise piqued the interest of those in the JOC. As the operator moved the camera into position for the room to view the helicopter, the entire room grew restless.
“From the time we had it on screen to the time it came, we knew something was wrong. It just wasn’t flying right,” Doty said. “At some point, I heard someone yell, ‘It’s coming down … it’s going to crash.’”
What Doty and the other members of the JOC didn’t realize at the time, was the pilot of the Russian Mi-17 helicopter lost control of the tail rotor due to a mechanical problem. The only way he could keep control of the helicopter is by flying straight and fast. Not wanting to crash in hostile territory, the pilot made a beeline for FOB Kalagush’s helicopter pad, where friendly forces would be there to help him and two other crew members.
“As soon as he came over the landing zone and took his forward momentum off, the lack of the tail rotor caused the helicopter to immediately start spinning (in circles) and dropped about 50 feet right onto its right side,” said Navy Capt. Raymond Benedict, who was serving as PRT Nuristan’s commanding officer.
Upon impact, the helicopter’s propeller blades shattered into the gravel, sending shrapnel and debris flying into the air.
“At that point, I started calling on my radio to let people know there had been a helicopter crash,” Benedict said.” As I was doing that, a group of people from the PRT responded directly to the crash site.”
Doty was the first to arrive.
“I didn’t really hesitate, I just got up and ran out instinctively — almost out of curiosity, but then it’s just like your body responds,” he said.
When Doty made it to the helicopter, the engines were still running, what was left of the helicopter’s blades were still spinning and the fuel tank had ruptured, leaking fuel onto the ground. To make matters worse, he quickly discovered why the helicopter was making its unscheduled arrival — to deliver about 2,000 pounds of 120 millimeter, high-explosive mortars.
“It happened so fast, all I was thinking was don’t get hit by the blades, don’t let it catch fire and don’t let it explode,” Benedict said. “It was a very dangerous situation.”
Standing hundreds of feet away was Doty’s wife, Thalia, who, at the time, was an Air Force staff sergeant assigned to FOB Kalagush as a supply troop.
“It was very scary, because my reaction was thinking we should get back and away from the scene,” she said. “There were a few people who ran towards the helicopter, and it was scary.”
As she watched her husband lead the rescue effort, she asked herself the same question many spouses would upon seeing their husband or wife heading toward danger.
“Why did he have to do it, why did he have to be the one?” she asked. “But after the fact, I was happy, because if it had been any of us in there, we would have wanted someone to pull us out.”
Doty was quickly able to get inside the helicopter, where all three crew members were alive, but either unconscious or in a state of shock, and weren’t attempting to get out themselves.
“I just went through the checklist of get in, get the people out, and you don’t really take into account anything else,” he said.
However, he quickly realized the situation was dire and the helicopter’s engines needed to be shut off so they wouldn’t ignite the leaking fuel, causing the helicopter and the mortars to explode.
While the rest of the rescue team helped egress the crew members, Doty remained inside the still-running helicopter, attempting to shut off its engines.
Doty had some knowledge of a cockpit from his time in the Civil Air Patrol, and his father was a former Air Force helicopter pilot. He first tried the helicopter’s emergency fuel control switch, but nothing happened. Next, he shut off the throttles — still nothing.
“At one point, I even took my knife out, and I tried to cut wires to see if that would work,” Doty said. However, during the crash, the linkages between the cockpit and engine were damaged, so no amount of work he could do within the cockpit would shut off the engines.
After the crew was safely extracted and Doty could do nothing else to stop the helicopter’s engines, he climbed out and ran for cover. Still not willing to give up, he called his father.
“He was very matter of fact and said, ‘Dad, there’s been a helicopter that’s crashed, and we need to figure out how to turn it off,’” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Doty, who, at one time, trained Afghan pilots on the same model helicopter. “Once I determined he had done all the things I would have recommended, we talked about other ways we could shut the helicopter down.”
Doty and his father couldn’t come up with an alternative, but in the end, he didn’t need to shut the engines down. Benedict directed everyone to stay at a safe distance from the helicopter and let it run out of fuel.
“We couldn’t shut it off, so we got as far away as we could from it, until it shut down about an hour later,” Benedict said.
Soon after, two helicopters arrived to medevac the injured aircrew to a hospital to receive further care.
“I could never be prouder to see a team that was thrown together, respond to something like that with such heroic actions … and at the end of the day, rescuing all three crew members with no one on our team getting hurt,” Benedict said.
Not long after the incident, he decided to submit Doty and several other key members for awards, based on their actions in the rescue effort.
“As an eye witness and understanding the definition and requirements of the Soldier’s Medal, I felt very confident that Sergeant Doty was deserving of the Soldier’s Medal,” Benedict said.
He nominated Doty, two Soldiers and two Sailors for the Soldier’s Medal, but the paperwork didn’t go through the system as smoothly as that day’s rescue efforts.
“There’d be a turnover of personnel, or the Army unit that was there left and another came in, and then the fact that he was an Airman deployed with Army who was led by Navy officers contributed to the decoration being lost in the system,” Doty’s father said. “I talked to my son several times and told him, ‘It looks like it fell through the cracks and you’re not going to get it.’ His comment was, ‘I didn’t do it for the recognition. I did it because that’s what I do.’”
Doty is now assigned as an instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., teaching young service members the art of combat photography. His supervisor heard the story and resubmitted him for the Soldier’s Medal. After writing a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and getting her involved in the process, Doty was approved to receive the medal.
“When I finally found out it was going to happen, there was a sense of relief,” Doty said. “I didn’t have to bother anyone anymore, ask people for witness statements and stop feeling so frustrated about it.”
Doty said the award isn’t a representation of what he did, but of what Airman can accomplish no matter what career field they come from.
“I think it’s important that we don’t focus on me and what I did, but look at what an Airman did, what the photographer did,” he said. “You don’t have to be in the security forces community or a medic or have any unique training to respond and save another life.”
He added, “It took a little going above and beyond what makes you comfortable, and I think that’s what I’ve been doing since I joined the Air Force.”