Moody Airman receives Purple Heart, learns value of wingman support

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
When a sniper's bullet careened off his turret-mounted machine gun and struck his side, the last thing the young Airman thought was that he had just been shot.

Senior Airman Jeremy Birchfield, 824th Security Forces Squadron turret gunner, had just paid a local Iraqi boy to get him a pizza, while he and half of his squad provided security around a police station in downtown Baghdad.

The rest of the unit was inside the building, training Iraqi policemen after a morning patrol Sept. 21, 2006.

"I heard a pop and saw a puff of brown smoke as I was standing to adjust my gear. It felt like somebody had kneed me in the hip," said Airman Birchfield. "I thought somebody had thrown a flash-bang into my Hummer as a joke."

A fellow squad member, Senior Airman Ashley-Ann Cady, was the only one who saw the flash and sparks of the rifle round striking Airman Birchfield's barrel. As a sharpshooter she knew immediately what she just saw and her response was instantaneous.

"Sniper! Get down! Everyone get down!" she screamed.

Only then did it make sense to the injured Airman.

"Airman Cady put it together faster then all of us. She probably saved somebody from another shot," said Airman Birchfield.

In the fumbling scramble, Staff Sgt. Chad Henderson, the Humvee driver and radio-telephone operator, made it to the gunner's side and began first aid.

"He had fallen out of the turret seat into the cab," said Sergeant Henderson. "I cut his waistband to expose his hip and I could see right away the wound wasn't as bad as we had all feared."

The wounded gunner knew the other six members of his squad were still inside the Iraqi police station, unaware of what was going on outside.

"With Henderson working on my side and Cady yelling at the locals to get down, I got on the radio to the rest of the squad," said Airman Birchfield.

"Proper procedure in the case of a sniper is to take cover and not expose more people in case the shooter decides to try again," he added. "But our medic came out of the station right away to do his part."

With the area secured and the squad mounted up, Sergeant Henderson drove at top speed through the crowded streets of Baghdad to the nearest hospital in the 'Green Zone' while he worked the radios to tell them they were coming.

"It's a 30-minute drive with good traffic," said the Sergeant. "We made it there in 10 minutes, sirens blaring the whole way."

As they sped toward the medical center, Airman Birchfield remained in good spirits.
"I was lying in the back holding on and joking that the Iraqi kid was going to take my money and I wasn't going to get any pizza," he said.

As the squad's Humvees arrived at the Army hospital in the Green Zone, a team of medics awaited Airman Birchfield's arrival.

"I got out of the Humvee under my own power and the medics all looked a bit disappointed," he chuckled.

The Airman used a borrowed cell phone to call his mother from the his bed. He was treated and released from the hospital the next day.

On Sept. 24, 2006, before his entire squadron, Airman Birchfield became the first person assigned to the 824th SFS to receive the Purple Heart.

After spending two weeks on quarters, he was allowed to rejoin his squad; he has since made a full recovery with no lasting ill effects.

"I told my team leader I wanted to be back in my turret in the lead vehicle again. I wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "It warms my heart to know people in my squad would risk their lives to help me when I needed them most."