Air Force pararescue jumper Zachary A. Kline, ’02, has received a Silver Star Medal for his role as an assistant team leader during a battlefield rescue in which a downed helicopter exploded in mountainous Kapisa Province, Afghanistan.
Kline, 33, was among members of the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron based at Bagram Airfield, about 25 miles north of Kabul. Teams were deployed on word that an Army helicopter with two pilots aboard had crashed in a hostile Afghan valley. Air Force public affairs reported that there was one pilot casualty and one survivor.
Kline received the Silver Star from Maj. Gen. Frank Padilla in an award ceremony July 14 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. Attending were Kline’s immediate family including wife, Naomi Bancroft-Kline, and their daughter, Wren.
He and his family live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Kline teaches at a paramedic school.
About sharing his story with the APU Blog, Kline said, “I’m honored.”
The Silver Star was established by Congress in 1918 and is awarded for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States. It is the nation’s third highest military decoration for valor.
Born in Hartford, Conn., Kline earned a BA in environmental policy and planning and enlisted in the Air Force 2004. He joined the 212th Rescue Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and served three tours in Afghanistan.
Kline recalls the mission April 23, 2011, as the longest rescue hoist he’d ever been on. He estimates it at 180 feet – significantly higher than a standard descent.
Elite crews trained in emergency medical tactics as well as combat and survival skills, Air Force pararescue jumpers like Kline parachute into hostile territory to retrieve wounded troops. Tasks include using survival skills to help others, supporting special operations in combat search and rescue, and providing medical help in the field.
The mission started when two Bagram-based Pave Hawk helicopters, each with a three-man parajumper team aboard, reached a ridge several hundred feet above the wrecked helicopter to find the surviving Army pilot. The Air Force said hoists were planned for the survivor, who was treated in the field, and the second pilot, who had died at the crash site before rescuers could arrive.
“We were going to do everything in our power to get him back,” Kline said of the second pilot. “If I had to clip in and hold him, I would have. There was no way he wasn’t coming back.”
Insurgents had taken up positions behind a large tree and fired on the Pave Hawks, causing them to return to Bagram for repairs and fresh crews. The hours-long battle attracted backup aircraft, including rocket-equipped A-10 Thunderbolts and Apache attack helicopters.
The Air Force said one parajumper team and the surviving Army pilot eventually were airlifted to safety following a one-wheel hover that saw a Pave Hawk pilot set a wheel down on adjacent rock so the other men could jump in.
On the ground, Kline and Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna assessed the Army helicopter crash site and realized there was little they could do but wait for Pave Hawks to return. Sniper fire soon forced the men to take cover behind a rock outcropping. Kline said shots started to get “really close” and he asked for help from aircraft above.
“I was basing all of my calls off the impacts,” Kline said in an Air Force news account. “They just hit everywhere. We were watching where the dust flew and taking a reverse azimuth.”
When rounds hit the downed Army helicopter, Kline said he yelled to Cenna to run.
“I had noticed during my initial scan that there was still a rocket pod with rockets in it. That was my concern – that it was going to be like the Fourth of July.
“I have molten metal on my (body armor) kit from where the helicopter exploded,” Kline said.
The two men waited in a ravine, evading sporadic gunfire for more than five hours, while Pave Hawks made several rescue attempts. Apache helicopters eventually engaged insurgent targets, clearing the way for Kline and Cenna to hoist aboard with the deceased Army pilot.
Marc Phillips, APU Director of Recreational Programs and himself a veteran of the Army’s Special Forces Group, praised Kline and pararescue jumpers for doing “one of the toughest jobs, in or out of the military.”
“Plenty of APU grads have gone to do great things,” Phillips said. “I think we should all be proud of Zach, who has truly earned the title of American Hero.”
Founded in 1959, APU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and is Alaska’s only private, four-year baccalaureate liberal arts university.