Retired Capt. Christopher C. Palumbo received the second highest award a U.S. soldier can earn in combat during a ceremony at John F. Kennedy Hall, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Friday.
The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to Palumbo by a fellow Army aviator, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, for his actions on April 11, 2005, while serving as a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot-in-command in southeastern Afghanistan, according to an Army Special Operations Command news release.
Palumbo was originally awarded the Silver Star for his actions, before it was upgraded this year.
A Chief Warrant Officer 3 at the time, Palumbo was part of a quick reaction force when his crew was called to infill a Special Forces team responding to an ambush on an Afghan National Army convoy in the mountains, according to a copy of his archived Silver Star citation.
Palumbo’s crew dropped off the Special Forces team after a pair of AH-64 Apaches had already arrived and forced the insurgents to flee deeper into the mountains. Upon landing and making contact, the U.S. soldiers confirmed the Afghans were not injured and decided to recon the area, looking for the militants.
“The AH-64s flew to the area and saw three suspected militants and Chief Warrant Officer Three Palumbo inserted the Special Forces team to neutralize the threat,” the Silver Star citation reads. “The Soldiers were successful, but they didn’t realize that most of the insurgents were embedded in the caves.”
At that point, a gunfight broke out. Two of the ground troops were hit and when the Apaches had to leave to refuel, the Black Hawks were left to provide support and protection for their comrades on the ground.
The rocky, steep cliff the soldiers were on made it too dangerous for Palumbo to land his aircraft.
Instead, he began flying his Black Hawk between the wounded friendlies and the insurgents, allowing his crew to alternate engaging the enemy. He continued to rotate his helicopter so that his gunners would switch off engaging the insurgents and reloading, maintaining suppressive fire on their position.
“While flying figure-eight patterns, low-level, in a valley between the insurgents and the wounded Americans, [Palumbo’s] aircraft started taking heavy enemy fire. The crew chiefs took aim, shooting straight down at the insurgents attempting to maneuver on the wounded Americans,” Palumbo’s former platoon leader, Lt. Col. Robert K. Beale, said in the release.
One crew member was injured by a ricocheting bullet during the maneuver and the helicopter was heavily damaged by small-arms and rocket propelled grenade fire. But Palumbo kept flying that pattern until his Black Hawk was low on fuel and ammunition, sustaining significant damage.
The helicopter took more than 50 gun shots and the fuel cell was damaged and leaking before Palumbo determined he needed to fly his heavily-damaged aircraft to a hospital so the wounded crew chief could receive medical care, according to the Silver Star citation.
By the time the crew landed, an emergency shutdown was required due to spraying fuel.
A medical evacuation helicopter in the area eventually responded to the Special Forces team and evacuated the two wounded soldiers.
“The events of that fateful day permanently impacted me and the soldiers of our platoon. For the first time in my short military career, I had witnessed extraordinary heroism and courage by otherwise ordinary men,” Beale said in the release.
The support the crew provided allowed medical care to reach the wounded and for additional support aircraft to successfully recover the unit and service members, according to the Army. All the U.S. military personnel survived the attack.
Palumbo and his Black Hawk crew returned to flying missions the next morning.
“It was absolutely remarkable heroism during that whole battle,” McConville said during the ceremony, according to the release. “Thank you all for your heroism.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer