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News > Maryland Air Guard pilots awarded Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in Afghanistan
A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Squadron
Air Force Maj. Chris Cisneros, far left, and Air Force Lt. Col. Paul C. Zurkowski, left, both A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Squadron, stand at the position of attention during an awards ceremony at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Md., Dec. 8 where they were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for their actions in a fire fight while deployed to Afghanistan. (Air National Guard photo by Tech Sgt. David Speicher)
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Maryland Air Guard pilots awarded Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in Afghanistan

Posted 12/11/2013   Updated 12/11/2013 Email story   Print story


by Tech. Sgt. David Speicher
175th Wing

12/11/2013 - BALTIMORE -- Two pilots from the Maryland Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Squadron were recently awarded one of the Air Force's highest awards for actions in combat.

Air Force Lt. Col. Paul C. Zurkowski and Air Force Maj. Christopher D. Cisneros received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for their efforts and actions during an engagement in Afghanistan that allowed 90 Soldiers on the ground to live to fight another day.

It all started with troops in contact with the enemy in a desert valley with worsening weather conditions. Zurkowski and Cisneros, both A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots, were called into the fight and they remained on-station providing close air support to the troops on the ground engaged in the ongoing fire fight.

"I saw tracer fire and I knew I was getting shot at but I went right back into supporting the ground troops. I turned away from the ground fire and got right back into providing fire support," said Zurkowski, the squadron commander.

Zurkowski said he concentrated 30mm cannon fire along a ridgeline to the north of the ground troop's location while Cisneros, his wingman, refueled from an orbiting KC-135 Stratotanker.

"Starting on the fourth pass, Cisneros was eight minutes away from the target area," said Zurkowski. "At this point I am out of ammunition and I am below bingo fuel (a level of fuel where the pilot must return to base). I am not going to make it to the tanker. I inform the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) on the ground that it will be about seven minutes until there is another A-10 on station. So there is a break in coverage for about seven minutes."

Seven minutes in a fierce firefight is a long time to the ground troops.

"This is an eternity," said Zurkowski. "I tried to get as much information to Cisneros as I handed off the target area to him."

Full Tank, Plenty of Ammo

"I got a brief hand-off," said Cisneros, adding that he heard the JTAC on the radio.

"It sounded like he needed help right away," said Cisneros. "I explained to him about the weather."

Cisneros said he still needed to navigate around weather and terrain to get back to the target area, adding that the call for 'ordnance right away' has to be balanced with the safety of the coalition troops in contact with the enemy.

"We want to find the friendlies," said Cisneros. "I had a difficult time seeing the friendlies because of the weather. There were lightning strikes and these guys really needed my assistance. But, anytime you employ ordnance you are concerned where friendly vs. enemy positions are."

But, he understood the need for urgency, said Cisneros.

"They were under fire and I needed to employ my 30mm (cannon)," he said. "As I checked in with the JTAC, I got the vibe that they wanted to make sure I employ (weapons) ASAP on the enemy."

That was made more difficult as it seemed the coalition forces on the ground were almost too busy to communicate with those in the air, said Cisneros.

"They were under too much fire to make corrections (to the attacks he executed)," he said. "Eventually two other A-10s joined the fight. We were able to execute coordinated 30 mm attacks to neutralize the enemy and provide cover to HH-60 Pave Hawk casualty evacuation helicopters."

Danger Close

Cisneros remembered a conversation with one of the JTACs who was taking direct fire.

"'I'm shot," Cisneros said the JTAC told him over the radio. "I'm handing the radio over to someone else."

Cisneros said he knew at that point that the engagement meant "danger close" missions, where ordnance is dropped very close to friendly positions.

"(It was) danger close - you could tell by his voice we hit the right target," said Cisneros.
In the end, coalition forces emerged without loss of life.

"They got all 90 of the coalition (members out)," said Cisneros. "The wounded were airlifted to nearby medical treatment facilities."

"It was definitely the most challenging mission I've flown," said Cisneros.

"You saved a lot of lives"

"I landed at Bagram (Airfield) and had maintenance look the plane over for battle damage," said Zurkowski. "That is when they found the two bullet holes in the airplane...I knew I had been shot at, but I didn't know I had been hit until then."

The next day the two pilots visited the wounded JTACs in the Bagram hospital. Cisneros recalled a JTAC asking "'Are you the A-10 (pilots) that stayed when the weather got really bad?'"

When the two Thunderbolt drivers responded that they were, the JTAC said, "Brilliant! You saved a lot of lives," said Cisneros.

"For an A-10 pilot there is no greater satisfaction then to meet the guys you helped that day and hear them say 'You are the reason I am alive today."

Cisneros and Zurkowski were awarded the DFC in a ceremony at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Md., Dec. 8.

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