Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The day started out as normal as a young airman in Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province could expect on May 26, 2011.
Staff Sgt. Greg Gibbs, saddled by the more mundane tasks required in a war zone, hadn’t flown in a couple of weeks, and the 25-year-old door gunner was eager to get back aboard the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter known as Pedro 55. He didn’t have to wait long.
Pedro 55’s four crew members soon received the type of call for which they had trained for years.
A squad of Army soldiers, tasked with finding a reported cache of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, had been lured to the middle of a minefield. It was Pedro 55’s mission to hover over the minefield and hoist the soldiers to safety. It was a mission that very nearly cost Gibbs, now an air crew instructor with Kirtland Air Force Base’s 512th Rescue Squadron, his life, his crew’s lives and those of the soldiers they’d been sent to save.
For his valiant efforts that day, Gibbs received a Distinguished Flying Cross – the military’s seventh-highest award – in ceremonies Friday inside the cavernous 58th Special Operations Wing hangar at Kirtland.
“It’s pretty overwhelming. I’m not wired this way – to have a big celebration on my account,” Gibbs said after the ceremony, which was attended by an estimated 275 airmen and guests, including his wife, Sonya, and sons Caiden, 7, and Finn, 4. “…But it’s also really good for my community – the rescue community – to have their story told.”
Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, the three-star commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, flew in to present the award to Gibbs.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguish themselves in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” The first DFC ever awarded was given to then-Capt. Charles Lindbergh for his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Gibbs, who has completed five deployments to the Middle East, was on his third deployment when Pedro 55 successfully extracted the soldiers.
According to the citation accompanying the award, as Pedro 55 was hoisting a pararescueman and the last of the soldiers to safety, the helicopter began to lose power – and altitude. Instinctively, Gibbs began giving the pilots exact altitude and position calls, allowing them to back the stricken helicopter away from the minefield.
“The pilots, relying on his guidance, were able to fly backward down the valley avoiding catastrophically impacting the minefield by only two feet,” the citation reads.
The pilots were able to resume the flight, but the Pave Hawk was now dangerously low on fuel. Still, they had managed to hoist the pararescuman and soldier on board. Gibbs then assisted the flight engineer in calculating whether Pedro 55 could make it back to base – and determined they’d have about five minutes of fuel left by the time they returned to Kandahar. Fortunately, their calculations were dead on. The mission was a success, and Pedro 55 saved seven crewmen, two soldiers – and the $40 million helicopter.
In brief remarks at Friday’s ceremony, Gibbs told current air crew students why the mission succeeded: “I used the basic air crew fundamentals I learned here at Kirtland to help my crew.”
“This award is great recognition of an amazing act of heroism,” Roberson told the audience. “And know this, sergeant Gibbs, airmen all over the world will now know your story.”
Gibbs, now a master sergeant, said he’s often asked why he did what he did that day: He finally come up with the answer: “These Things We Do, That Others May Live,” which is the pararescueman’s motto.
Pararescuemen, also known as PJs, are members of Air Force Special Operations combat search-and-rescue teams. Their main mission is the rescue of downed air crews in hostile territory. All PJs get part of their training at Kirtland.