By Debbie Stevenson

Killeen Daily Herald

The commander of the 1st Cavalry Divisions aviation brigade is hoping to wrap up a busy Christmas weekend in Iraq by honoring the heroic efforts of a few of his pilots.

On Sunday, we hope to award a Silver Star and a couple of Distinguished Flying Crosses, said Col. Jim McConville in a telephone call Thursday from the 4th Brigades base in Taji, some 12 miles to Baghdads north.

One of the brigades Apache gunship pilots, Capt. Ryan Welch, was tapped for the Distinguished Flying Cross after his role in the rescue of two wounded Kiowa pilots.

The daring rescue began when two Kiowa helicopters collided Oct. 16 just south of Baghdads airport.

Tragically, Capt. Chris Johnson, 29, of Excelsior Springs, Mo., and Chief Warrant Officer-3 William Brennan, 37, of Bethlehem, Conn., who were on board the second Kiowa, were killed in the crash.

Injured in the second helicopter were Chief Warrant Officer-2 Chad Beck of Killeen and Chief Warrant Officer-2 Greg Crowe of Florence, Ky.

Short on room in his two-seater Apache, Welch strapped himself and the lesser of the injured fliers to the gunships protruding fenders, McConville said. Chief Warrant Officer-2 Justin Taylor then flew Welch and the injured crew some 15 miles to the nearest combat support hospital.

In an earlier incident Aug. 8, McConville said co-pilot Chief Warrant Officer-3 Steve Wells of Lampasas earned a Silver Star nomination after holding a hostile crowd at bay from his Kiowa helicopter until members of the divisions 1st Brigade could rescue two pilots from another Kiowa. The helicopter had crashed during heavy fighting in Sadr City after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

It went down in a 2.2 million-person city where you have no friends, McConville said.

Wells and his crew, which included Chief Warrant Officer-2 Jamie Stepan, 31, of Killeen, were determined there would be no repeat of the images from Somalia in 1993 when a dead Black Hawk pilot was dragged through the streets of the capital Mogadishu, McConville said.

(Wells) suppressed people coming at the aircraft. His co-pilot was shooting his rifle out of the door, McConville said. Our guys were doing everything to save them.

The helicopter wreckage and the pilots eventually were rescued by the 1st Brigades tankers and Bradley fighting vehicle crews.

They were flying the next day, McConville said of the two injured pilots.

We truly care about our pilots, McConville said. You cant let these folks have victories.

Since the brigades arrival in Iraq 10 months ago, McConville said his unit has embraced the mission, which has included U.S. offensives in Najaf, Fallujah and Sadr City.

Pretty much when they need us, were there, McConville said.

I think the highlight for me is just in watching the extraordinary heroism of my soldiers, how they have performed over here, he said. Iraq is a very dangerous and complex place. ... I feel proud and privileged to have the opportunity to serve with them.

The brigades helicopters, which include Apaches, Black Hawks and Kiowas, have logged an unprecedented 54,000-plus combat hours ferrying more than 57,000 soldiers across Iraq, along with countless supplies.

When we fly, soldiers dont die, McConville said of the need to keep the brigades aircraft in the air.

All those flight hours, which are six times the normal number flown in a year when the brigade is at Fort Hood, have required even more time spent on maintaining the aircraft.

McConville said the complex Apache gunships average 18 hours of maintenance for every hour spent in the air. A Black Hawk usually will need between 12 to 13 hours maintenance and the smaller Kiowas, at least seven hours.

Theyve got a lot of moving pieces, McConville said. Youve got that thing called gravity you cant pull off to the side of the road when it breaks down.

Although attacks in Taji have been on the decline since the militarys success in Fallujah, McConville said he expects the militants to pick up the pace again as they try to disrupt Christmas by attacking Christian church services and U.S. military targets.

Well be flying missions to prevent them from attacking forward operating bases, Christian churches, he said.

McConville said base security had become a priority for the divisions commander, Maj. Gen. Pete Chiarelli, and his assistant division commander for support, Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, in the wake of what appears to have been a suicide attack on a U.S. mess hall Tuesday in Mosul.

General Chiarelli has put out very specific guidelines to preclude this from happening, McConville said. He has established very strict guidelines and implemented a plan to ensure all our dining facilities are safe and secure for our troops, and implemented them immediately.

McConville said despite the separation from their families at Christmas, morale has remained high in his brigade, and the soldiers understand why they are in Iraq.

The Christmas spirit is alive and well in the Warrior Brigade at Camp Taji, Iraq, said McConville, noting that his units share of a shipment of Christmas trees sent to Iraq by the Central Texas-Fort Hood Chapter of the Association of the United States Army has been set up in the base facilities.

Soldiers really appreciate being appreciated, he said. The support we are getting over here is absolutely unbelievable. So many people have gone out of their way (to support us). It really makes soldiers feel good.

Contact Debbie Stevenson at

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