Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steve O. Crandall and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jude C. Okpala, AH-64 Apache pilots with the 7th Squadron, 17th Heavy Attack Reconnaissance Cavalry Regiment, were presented the Distinguished Flying Cross on Aug. 29.
Maj. Gen. Paul T. Calvert, 1st Cavalry Division commander, presented the award to the two attack helicopter pilots at the squadron’s hangar for their actions in preventing several U.S. positions from being overrun by the Islamic State on Feb. 7, 2018, while engaged in aerial combat in support of Special Operations Joint Task Force during the “Battle of Conoco Oilfield” east of Dayr az-Zawr, in Syria.
Crandall, from Boise, Idaho, said receiving the award was a little bit humbling.
“I work with such great dudes and the bravery they displayed while we were there, I feel deserves just as much attention as this,” Crandall said. “So, it’s a little bit humbling getting this award knowing that they did just as brave things.”
Crandall said on the night of Feb. 7, as American forces were about to be overrun, he and Okpala pushed inside of enemy air defense range and destroyed enemy locations who were advancing on U.S. forces.
“It was a short fight relatively speaking, but there were a lot of other assets in the air and on the ground fighting back,” Crandall said. “There were deliberate decisions being made that night on all aspects of the mission; it’s not necessarily routine, but it is something we are ready to do.”
Crandall said he and Okpala had flown missions that night and had contact with ISIS forces earlier in the day but didn’t encounter enemy forces after this latest response.
“There was always a threat of other attacks after this one, but I really think the violent nature of this one deterred them (ISIS) from doing it again,” Crandall said.
Okpala, from Chicago, said the award was a culminating appreciation for the hard work and dedication of all the soldiers that were involved with the mission.
“I did not feel like this was a personal award per say, I feel like it’s more of a unit acknowledgment,” he said.
Okpala said the mission began as a routine flight to support friendly forces.
“We got the call that a friendly position was about to be overrun, we headed out there in support of that friendly position,” Okpala said. “We knew for a fact that there were Americans on the ground and we wanted to make sure they got back home safe.”
Okpala said the only thing going through his mind was would they make it to those friendly positions on time.
“We just were hoping to make it on time because the reports we were getting as we were flying there over the radio sounded like a dire situation,” Okpala said.
Okpala said knowing he saved American lives that day made him feel “happy” that no Americans were injured.
“It could have gone south in a very bad way, so that gives me a sense of self satisfaction,” Okpala said. “It’s what we signed up for, it’s what we trained for.”
Col. Lance Van Zandt, commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, said the award was significant because it was not an award that is commonly presented.
“This is an award that is so uncommon you’re likely to meet less than a handful who’ve earned the honor in your career, and even fewer that have three, such as CW5 Crandall now does,” said Van Zandt.“Steve, what you’ve accomplished in a career is nothing short of remarkable.”
Van Zandt said Crandall’s leadership alongside Jude transcends beyond the squadron.
“Because of this team’s actions, moving well within the range of enemy artillery and (air defense artillery) in 19 separate engagements, countless enemy positions were destroyed and American lives were saved,” Van Zandt said. “The ground force you supported continued after that day to take the fight to the enemy and ultimately return home to their families because of your courage and disregard for personal safety.”
Calvert said not to underestimate the superior combat value of the “Palehorse Squadron,” and that “Superior combat value will offset numerical inferiority, superior leadership combined with superior combat value of troops constitutes a reliable basis for success in battle.”
“On the night of 7 February 2018, it wasn’t two pilots by the name of Steve and Jude in an AH-64 Apache, it was an entire squadron,” Calvert said. “What was accomplished by those two pilots that night was significant, but their ability to do what they did from that cockpit in limited visibility was absolutely enabled by every single member of this formation.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. The extraordinary achievement must have resulted in an accomplishment as exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from his comrades or from other persons in similar circumstances.