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Sean Laycox

Nevada Army National Guard / Distinguished Flying Cross

His helicopter riddled with bullets, he completed multiple Afghanistan rescue missions

As its rear wheels touched the ground, bullets ripped through the Chinook helicopter. Army door gunners on both sides responded with their M-60 machine guns while nearby explosions from rockets fired by escorting Apache AH-64 gun ships above rocked the Chinook.

Engulfed in the fury, Chief Warrant Officer Sean Laycox was determined to land his Chinook and insert Special Forces soldiers near a village where several high-value Taliban leaders were meeting.

A relatively peaceful 21 years in the Army and Guard was changing abruptly on April 18, 2005, as Laycox made his first air assault into the teeth of the enemy. It would not be his last treacherous landing that day.

What had started as a monotonous tour for him — delivering supplies for Operation Enduring Freedom — was turning into a violent battle at Deh Chopan, in remote southeastern Afghanistan.

As Laycox led another Chinook and the Apaches to the landing zone alongside an orchard, the insurgents emerged from a row of mud buildings.

The second Chinook touched down while Laycox circled back to land. In a hail of bullets, he said, “We were basically sitting ducks there.”

While Special Forces soldiers scrambled out the back ramp, Laycox radioed for the Apaches to provide cover.

“You could hear the Apaches shooting their rockets to the mud wall off to the right, which was very distracting,” he said. “During this whole time there was a huge explosion to the aircraft, the six o’clock position.”

Laycox initially thought it was from an Apache-fired rocket. He later learned that an insurgent had rushed the aircraft with a hand grenade. Special Forces soldiers shot him before he could reach the helicopter.

“He dropped the hand grenade, and that’s what the explosion was we heard,” Laycox said. “Fortunately for us, he didn’t get it on board.”

His bullet-riddled helicopter had taken a couple in the front transmission, and Laycox saw that the Chinook was about 50 degrees hotter than usual — dangerously close to its limit.

“As soon as we got those guys off, we took off as quickly as we could and kind of accelerated low-level so we could get behind the hill where they couldn’t shoot at us any more,” he said.

Into view came the sister Chinook, also shot up and leaking oil.

“So we found a spot for him to land in a little valley, kind of a depression where we could hide the helicopter the best we could,” Laycox said. “He landed there, and we landed behind him.”

The battle raging, word soon came to remove both Special Forces teams. But only Laycox’s Chinook was still operable.

He flew back to the battle, again drawing fire on approach and in the landing zone. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades pounded the area as the Chinook was loaded.

It seemed like an eternity for the troops to load, Laycox said. Thirty seconds turned into minutes as he kept thinking: “You can’t leave them there. Once you leave them there, they’re sitting ducks themselves.”

So the Chinook crew waited. “They’re (Special Forces) doing their best to get everyone on board,” he said. “But time stands still for the air crew. … This is what we have to do. … It’s part of the job. There’s an obligation to the soldiers that you put in.”

The Chinook sat on the ground for five or six minutes. “The whole time we could hear these explosions, and you could see them once in a while. They loaded up all the dead Taliban and troops and then we got out of there.”

Later, he and his crew went back a third time to retrieve the crew from the stranded Chinook.

Laycox received the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals for valor in other engagements in September 2005 from Vice President Dick Cheney in a hangar at Bagram Air Base.

The citation reflected the real bottom line: No U.S. soldiers were killed.

In part, it read: “The skillful piloting and selfless decisions of … Laycox throughout the battle and his valorous determination to support the inserted assault force had no doubt saved the lives of many on this day.”

Keith Rogers covers the military for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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Sean Laycox

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Sean Laycox of the Nevada National Guard repeatedly put his life on the line when he piloted his Chinook helicopter into a battle zone in Afghanistan, dropping off soldiers and transporting the dead and wounded out of the area amid heavy enemy fire. (Photo by Gary Thompson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

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Sean Laycox

Nevada Army National Guard / Distinguished Flying Cross

Nickname: “Mr. Pickles”

Born June 10, 1959, in San Francisco.

Married to Janis, with two children, Mitchell, 18, and Caitlin, 14.

Served as a Nevada National Guardsman on a peacekeeping tour in Bosnia in 2002 and 2003 and in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2005 and 2006.

Piloted his Chinook helicopter into a battle zone, dropping off U.S. soldiers and repeatedly returning amid heavy enemy fire to pick up the dead and wounded and stranded survivors.

Lives in Reno, is employed as a supervisory aircraft flight instructor.

“When I was growing up I just had a lot of uncles who were former military, so I was kind of surrounded by that. My dad had been in the Army, so I always had a love of aviation.”

Afghanistan / Deh Chopan

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