I Am Not a Hero

A helicopter lands at Forward Operating Base Apache in Afghanistan's Zabul Province May 23, 2012. Tim Wimborne/Reuters

The last time I met a Green Beret, he was riding in the back of our Blackhawk helicopter. He sat on the floor with a bloody bandage wrapped over his head. His right eye was blown out that morning, but he refused to take pain medicine. He was laughing and joking as our helicopter flew back to base. The place we picked him up from was so terrible that surviving—even after losing an eye—made everything alright.

I am not a hero. I'm a Dustoff pilot for the military, which makes me little more than a flying ambulance driver. (They call us Dustoffs because of the dust that rises when our choppers leave the ground). I've gotten paid to pick people up on the worst day of their lives. The day they scream for their Mom, the day they thrash in pain and face eternity alone, thousands of miles from the people they love. I fly as fast as I can, but sometimes I can't fly fast enough. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I still see their faces clenched in agony, their skin turning a sickening shade of fish-belly white. Our medics tell them everything will be fine, that they'll survive. But sometimes, as they approach the end, they can see the truth written on my face, they can feel it in my silence.

Related: In Afghanistan's 'Valley of Death,' a Medevac Team's Miracle Rescue

A different Green Beret once told me that all the heroes he knew were buried at Arlington Cemetery. But some do survive. In June of 2011, my crew and I set out to rescue soldiers trapped in the towering mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The place is called the Watapur Valley, but we call it "The Valley of Death." It's just across the border from Pakistan's dangerous tribal areas. The Americans were set to raid a Taliban and Al-Qaeda training camp. But as they descended the sharp terrain, the insurgents attacked. The militants outnumbered the platoon. Facing heavy fire, our soldiers were stuck so close to the enemies, they could hear them talking. My crew rushed in to rescue the wounded, and give the other soldiers a chance to escape. We had never flown together before, and we were all afraid. We are not military cowboys, the type of brave characters you see on television. You'd probably pass us in the grocery store and never think twice.

My co-pilot was Kenny Brodhead, a mentor, master aviator and proud pacifist. An Army MEDEVAC helicopter had saved his family and he felt had to repay that debt. He got his chance that weekend. Our crew chief was David Capps, a young Harry Potter look-alike and brand new father from Nebraska. He joined the Army to be a mechanic and never planned to become a part of our flying emergency room.

I was an unlikely pilot, too. I'm a college dropout and former musician. For awhile, I even lived off the grid in northern California. But after 9/11, I decided I wanted to be a part of something meaningful. I joined the service, and eventually went to flight school. Several years later, the Army assigned me to Dustoff.

Our medic's name is Julia Bringloe. She was a single mom from Hawaii, a former ditch digger and construction foreman who once marched against the war. Later, she volunteered for "Dustoff." She wanted to help save lives. Her job was the hardest of all: As we hovered hundreds of feet in the air, we lowered her to the ground on a thin steel cable as bullets whistled past her. For three days, Julia sacrificed her body to protect the wounded soldiers, hauling men twice her size through volleys of machine gun fire. Twelve survived because of her efforts. Amazingly, she survived, too.

On November 12th, 2012, Newsweek told our story in its "Heroes Issue." But the word "hero" makes me feel like a fraud. In the cover photo, Kenny and David stand next to me. We're all in our flight gear, staring into space. As he snapped photos, the photographer kept asking us to think about our mission, and the moment seemed to drag on for hours. All I could think about was that Julia should have been there with us. Without my flight medic, the moment felt empty. If anything, she should have been on the cover. By herself. And I shouldn't have been there at all. I'm no hero—but I do fly heroes to a hospital. Or on the first leg of their journey to the grave.

Erik Sabiston is the author of Dustoff 7-3: Saving Lives Under Fire in Afghanistan. (Warriors Publishing, 2015)