“K-man! K-man! Wake up! We’ve gotta go!” Waking to those words, Master Sergeant Josh Kastens knew the day was about to get serious.
A twelve-year veteran who had reached his current rank almost two years ahead of his peers, Josh was a member of the elite Air Force pararescue fraternity known as “PJs.” Assigned to the 347th Rescue Group at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia, he was pulling his first six-month tour in Somalia even as most Americans didn’t realize members of their country’s military had been deployed to the African nation since 2007.
Being rousted out of bed at “oh-dark-thirty”—2:15 a.m. local time on this occasion—usually meant an aircraft was down and a pilot needed rescue—or, in PJ vernacular, “saved.”
“A viper flamed out,” said Captain Eddie Hoskins, speaking loud and being unmistakably clear. “Briefing room in five!”
During the briefing, Josh learned the mission would take him and his crew from their base near Berbera on the coast of the Gulf of Aden to an insurgent stronghold almost fifteen miles west of Saylac and ten miles south of Somalia’s border with Djibouti.
By 2:30, their HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter was airborne. Estimated time to target: twenty minutes. Outside the chopper, the early morning temperature was a stifling ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the heat was even more oppressive as engine noise drowned out everything but the headset chatter between crewmembers.
Two gunners stood ready at their GAU-2/B miniguns, while Josh and his PJ partner, Staff Sergeant Stu Duckworth, sat with their legs hanging out opposite doors, M-4 carbines across their laps. Just in case.
Josh had made six saves during previous combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, but something about this new battlefield gave him the creeps.
Flying fast and low at a ten o’clock heading, the chopper pilot followed instructions from controllers aboard an E-3B Sentry Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft flying high above, and they reached the downed pilot’s location without incident.
Due to the latest round of Pentagon budget cuts that had dramatically reduced the number of rescue aircraft in theater, only one chopper participated in this mission. And, thanks to misguided Rules of Engagement that no longer allowed gunners to use preliminary fire to clear landing zones of bad guys, every LZ was considered hot.
Approaching the LZ, the pilot took his chopper down at a steep angle while making a number of irregular turns designed to make it more difficult for anyone to shoot his bird down. Then, after dropping the PJs in a clearing, he climbed back into the sky. The entire process took less than forty seconds, and his chopper took no incoming fire. Now, he and his crew would keep watch over the area as the PJs went to work.
Equipped with night-vision goggles, the PJs reached the downed pilot quickly after spotting him crouched behind an abandoned truck some fifty yards north of the LZ.
“Are you hurt?” Josh asked the pilot, Captain Bud McGowan, who showed no signs of serious injury but was understandably nervous.
“No, but I think there are some bad guys out there,” the pilot replied, motioning with his eyes toward the east. “I heard them shouting to each other, so they can’t be too far away.”
Captain McGowan’s F-16C Fighting Falcon had lost hydraulic pressure in its lone engine. As a result, he had to eject in an area only a few miles away from an enemy base where, a short time earlier, members of the terror group al-Shabaab had been on the receiving end of one of his laser-guided five-hundred-pound bombs. Now, instead of being the hunter, he’d become the prey, hunted by dark-skinned men now less than half a mile away and closing fast.
After attaching a harness to the pilot, Josh radioed the chopper to return for an immediate pickup. As the word “copy” left his lips, a single shot rang out and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sergeant Duckworth—“Duck” to his friends—reach up with his left hand to the side of his head. A large chunk had been ripped out of the PJ’s helmet, but it didn’t appear as if the bullet had penetrated his partner’s skull. It did, however, cause him to be disoriented and have a hard time keeping his balance.
“Mama bear, we’re taking fire!” Josh screamed into his radio. “Duck’s hit! Duck’s hit! We need cover! East, one hundred yards! We need cover!”
More shots rang out, but all missed.
As Josh half-carried his partner toward the makeshift LZ, Captain McGowan fired his 9 mm Beretta in the direction of the attackers who had cut the distance between themselves and their prey in half.
“How many are–” Josh began to ask Captain McGowan before stopping in mid-sentence as an AK-47 round grazed the left side of his neck. Then another round hit him inches above his right hip. Adrenaline surging, a quick assessment confirmed neither wound was life threatening.
Seconds later, the chopper—their lifeline to the world— appeared out of nowhere from over a ridge to the south. After the helo’s right-side gunner spotted the rebels through his night-vision goggles, he unloaded a barrage of 7.62 mm rounds on the enemy positions and declared over the radio, “Enemy destroyed!”
Such an outcome had been made possible only after a U.S. Marine Corps three-star general had taken over as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and succeeded in convincing his superiors in the chain of command to allow crews aboard casualty- evacuation choppers (a.k.a., “CASEVACs” or “dustoffs”) to defend themselves in hot LZs.
Upon hearing the E-D announcement, the chopper pilot dropped his aircraft to the ground within twenty yards of the PJs and the aviator they had come to save.
Ignoring his own wounds, Josh partnered with Captain McGowan to load Sergeant Duckworth onto the chopper. As they began lifting him up to the floor of the chopper, three more gunshots rang out in quick succession and Josh felt more pain. Looking down as he began to collapse, he saw his left leg nearly severed above the knee.
For what seemed an eternity, Josh watched through his night-vision goggles as his own warm blood poured from the leg, yielding a bright-red thermal-infrared signature. Less than a minute after he was hit, he lost consciousness.
Responding to the burst of unexpected gunfire, the chopper’s right-side gunner quickly located and eliminated its source, another Somali sniper who seemed to appear out of nowhere some sixty yards northeast of the LZ. But it was too late for Josh.
While both PJs stayed true to their warrior fraternity’s creed, “That Others May Live,” only one survived.
The National Bet isn’t a military fiction novel, but the action in the book begins in East Africa and makes its way to several locations across the United States. One of those locations, tiny Effingham, Ill., is home to several of the book’s characters, including the father of the fallen PJ.
UPDATE 4/19/2015 at 1:31 p.m. Central: Check out the limited-time free-books offer here.