While you were sleeping . . . Commandos were in action

Capt. Allison Black, 1st Special Operations Group, was one of the first six Airmen awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal. She was awarded the medal for her courageous actions on a mission over the skies of Afghanistan on Dec. 4, 2001. (Courtesy photo)

Capt. Allison Black, 1st Special Operations Group, was one of the first six Airmen awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal. She was awarded the medal for her courageous actions on a mission over the skies of Afghanistan on Dec. 4, 2001. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. Byron Allen, 1st Special Operations Group, works his 7.62 mini-gun from the back of an MH-53 PAVE LOW helicopter. Also one of the first six Airmen to receive the Air Force Combat Action Medal, Sergeant Allen was selected for the prestigious honor because of his heroics on a mission in Iraq in 2004. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. Byron Allen, 1st Special Operations Group, works his 7.62 mini-gun from the back of an MH-53 PAVE LOW helicopter. Also one of the first six Airmen to receive the Air Force Combat Action Medal, Sergeant Allen was selected for the prestigious honor because of his heroics on a mission in Iraq in 2004. (Courtesy photo)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Every night, as millions of Americans sleep peacefully under the blanket of freedom U.S. servicemembers provide, Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines are in deep, dark places, far away from home, risking their lives to keep that blanket intact. 

This is the story of two of such Airmen.
 
For their actions, Capt. Allison Black and Master Sgt. Byron Allen, both of the 1st Special Operations Group, were among the first six Airmen awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal. 

Captain Black, a native of Northport, N.Y., originally entered the Air Force 15 years ago as an enlisted Airman. She was a survival, evasion, rescue and escape instructor for the first six-and-a-half years of her career. She completed her off-duty education at night, and after earning her bachelor's degree, she completed officer training school. 

Then, in search of a bigger challenge, she earned her wings as an AC-130H navigator in January 2000. 

During a mission in Afghanistan Dec. 4, 2001, Capt. Black definitely got the challenge she was looking for. 

That night, the ground forces her crew was protecting came under attack while convoying to home base. The oppositional forces were also firing anti-aircraft artillery at her gunship. 

"It was surreal," Captain Black said. "I wasn't scared because I was confident our equipment and people would protect us. There was no time to be scared."
She and her crew eliminated the enemy threat and helped the ground forces reach their destination. 

Hero is not a word the captain uses to describe herself. 

"I don't feel heroic," she said. "We did our job. I'm just a representative of the gunship community and the people who will earn the medal in the future." 

Sergeant Allen also shies away from the word hero. 

The Birmingham, Ala., native joined the Air Force almost 20 years ago to serve his country and does just that as a gunner on the MH-53J PAVE LOW helicopter. 

The mission on April 12, 2004, started out like countless other mission before Sergeant Allen said. 

That night, their mission included two PAVE LOWs each with a six-man crew. The lead chalk had three Army special operations forces members on board and his helicopter, chalk two, had two Army SOF members on board. 

The two ships were on their way to pick up troops who were killed in action. After a 40-minute flight, the helicopters prepared to land, and that's when Sergeant Allen realized something was different. 

"There were two helos already on the landing pad and that's unusual," he said. 

So the formation flew to a higher altitude in a secluded, dark area to radio the landing pad. 

All of a sudden, the pitch-black sky lit up and the sergeant heard 'Lead's hit.' 

A rocket-propelled grenade hit the nose of the lead aircraft. Three members of the first helicopter were seriously injured. Chalk two managed to avoid hitting the lead helicopter while evading further RPGs. 

It's a common practice when an aircraft is under fire to punch out flares to throw off infrared or heat-seeking weapons.
 
Though the flare did nothing to deter the RPGs, it did help Sergeant Allen by providing enough light for him to see the enemy on the ground. 

"I can still see it when I close my eyes," he said. "I could see about six or eight guys, some of them were standing, some were laying the ground, and some were just looking. I was still on my gun so I just fired into the crowd." 

In the process, Sergeant Allen and his crew lost track of chalk one. 

While still targets themselves, chalk two began searching for the other half of their formation. On the final scan of the area, he managed to make out the spinning rotor of their wingman aircraft, and they landed next to them just as the rotor stopped spinning. 

AC-130s in the area provided top cover for the Army SOF members while they rescued the downed crewmembers and while Sergeant Allen and his crew continued to provide cover. 

Though some members of the crew were seriously injured, the entire crew was rescued and flown to the hospital in Baghdad, Iraq. 

It wasn't until after the dust settled that reality began to sink in for Sergeant Allen.
"I wasn't scared until we got back to Baghdad," he said. "I realized they damn near killed some good friends of mine, and they tried like hell to kill me." 

Sergeant Allen now shares his experiences with others so they can avoid being in the same situation. He teaches Airmen tactics and the importance of working with their wingmen. 

Like Captain Black, Sergeant Allen is humble about his actions. 

"There are probably thousands of people who deserve this as much as I do," he said.
"To be chosen to go to Washington D.C., and be one of the first six presented with this medal is an honor." 

But the sergeant said he couldn't have done it by himself. 

While Captain Black and Sergeant Allen received two of the first medals, they aren't the only heroes wearing Air Force blue. 

So sleep well tonight, America, because your country's Airmen are on the job.