Black hawks rising: two students’ tales of flying Iraq and Afghanistan

Two GHSU College of Dental Medicine students flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First Lt. Walt Green raced his Black Hawk helicopter through the Iraqi night toward the source of a distress call he was answering. All the platoon leader knew was that a roadside improvised explosive device had shattered a company of traveling humvees.

Green and a second Black Hawk pilot surveyed the scene as small arms fire rained down on the blast radius from a nearby village. Two vehicles lay in pieces and smoke rose into the starry sky. Soldiers were hurt, but the rocky landscape in the northern Iraq province of Sinjar provided little coverage to land and load.

Using the region’s sandy soil to their advantage, Green’s counterpart positioned his bird between the hostile town and the downed unit. His blades twisted a tornado of sand and dirt into the air, creating a natural smokescreen so the soldiers could load their wounded. Green navigated the village perimeter, drawing fire away from the scene of the disaster.

Protected by an armored seat and side panels, Green wasn’t concerned about the small arms fire; bullets bounced off the Black Hawk like acorns off a trampoline. Explosives were another story. Good pilots had been brought down by lucky shots from untrained militants.

Green, now a second-year student in the College of Dental Medicine, covered the medivac’s tail as it took off with the wounded.

“Just then, a rocket-propelled grenade fired and flew right between his tail and my nose,” Green recalled of the incident in 2003. The insurgents’ missed shot revealed their position, allowing his door gunners to take them out of commission.

PERIL AND EXCITEMENT

About 2,000 miles away in Afghanistan, Capt. Kevin Wiman was trying to land his Black Hawk on a mountaintop. The margin of error was miniscule; if he landed short, he’d crash into the mountain, an overflight would send him over the side of a cliff. Such are the perils – and excitement – of flying in one of the world’s most rugged and dangerous places.

“Flying was a blast over there – racing it over a mountaintop and letting it drop as fast as you can, then following a river through the valley,” Wiman said. “Afghanistan has a lot of natural beauty.”

The Black Hawk, known as the UH-60, is the Army’s work-horse helicopter, serving a multi-purpose role between the slow but heavy-lifting Chinook CH-47 and the nimble Apache AH-64 attack helicopter.

“One day I might fly a generator to an outpost,” Green said. “The next day I might fly a colonel to meet different religious and political leaders. Or I could be running combat missions to find an insurgent – take four helicopters, box off the town and go door-to-door.”

Green, an Augusta native, once flew then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on a diplomatic mission in northern Iraq.

“People think of firefights when you say you went to war in Iraq. But a lot of times, you’re doing something like hanging out with some sheik, finding out what his town needs and trying to get it for him.”

It was a difficult and challenging role – especially for a 23-year-old. After graduating in 2001 from Vanderbilt University with a degree in history, Green started his four-year ROTC commitment at the U.S. Army Flight School at Fort Rucker, Ala. He then received advanced training at Fort Campbell, Ky., before being deployed to Iraq, where he oversaw 56 soldiers and 14 aircraft as platoon leader.

Wiman, also a second-year dental student, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2003 and also went to flight school at Fort Rucker. He chose Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., then completed the U.S. Army Pathfinder Course to learn how to plan and execute airborne operations. He was promoted to Company Commander, overseeing hundreds of soldiers in several platoons. But the former Eagle Scout and New Jersey native still wanted to be in the pilot’s seat. So he worked his way over to Flight Platoon Leader and ended up in one of only two Black Hawk companies in all of eastern Afghanistan.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I flew about 400 hours in six months,” he said. “After that, everything else in life you take with a grain of salt. You don’t stress out about anything.”

In a class of 70 students, it’s a unique coincidence that Green and Wiman would share such an uncommon background.

“The odds are tremendously small that I would find another Army aviator in my class, let alone someone who flew that exact same aircraft,” Wiman said.

FUTURE PLANS

Green and Wiman’s military experience contributed to their choice of professions.

“I found the military rewarding,” Wiman said. “But I would rather have had a more direct hand in helping the wounded. That’s one of the reasons I started considering medical or dental school.”

He left the Army for the Navy’s education program, the Health Services Collegiate Program, and although he’s a native northeasterner, he chose Georgia Health Sciences partially because he loves the South’s climate.

“Going into dentistry is a more radical shift in my comfort zone than shifting between branches of the military,” Wiman said.

His wife, Daniela, a dental hygiene student, have two children together: a 3-year-old son, Gabriel, and a daughter, Isabella, born in September. Wiman will be committed to seven years in the Navy when he graduates. He plans to stay in the Navy until
he reaches retirement (he’ll be 42 by then), then open a private practice.

For Green, health care runs in his family – his parents, Charles and Peggy, are Augusta physicians and Medical College of Georgia graduates (classes of 1974 and 1973, respectively). And Green’s wife, Mary Kate, is a first-year physician assistant student at Georgia Health Sciences University.

After returning from his deployment, he started taking prerequisite classes at Augusta State University and shadowed area dentists, including family friend Dr. J. Benjamin Deal (’74).

“The example he set as my childhood dentist stuck with me,” said Green, who plans to go into private practice when he graduates.

Black Hawks at a Glance

With its troop capacity and cargo lift capability, the versatile Black Hawk has enhanced the overall mobility of the Army while providing agile support on the battlefield in most weather conditions. Its critical components and systems are armored or redundant, and its airframe is designed to progressively crush on impact to protect the crew and passengers.

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