JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
Pinned behind the engine block of the pickup truck he was riding in before his world exploded, Senior Airman Christopher Bowerfind couldn't move a hair to his left or his right for fear of being riddled by bullets from anti-Afghanistan insurgents perched on a ridge raining PKM machine gun fire on his position.
As a tactical air control party specialist, it was Bowerfind's job to key the mic on his radio and call close air support to their aid. The problem was the TACP Airman's satellite communications radio had a smoking hole in it inflicted by a 7.62-mm bullet.
Cut off from other friendly forces and rapidly running out of ammunition, Bowerfind and his battered element were severed from the one lifeline the Airman was trained and equipped to give them. Without his radio, he was simply a rifleman who couldn't save himself or his comrades-in-arms.
Fourteen years later, Master Sergeant Bowerfind stood at rigid attention while U.S. Rep. Don Young pinned a Bronze Star Medal on his chest during a Oct. 19, 2017, ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. The award was earned partly for his actions at the ridgeline in Afghanistan Nov. 3, 2003.
Bowerfind currently serves as a pararescueman with the 212th Rescue Squadron at JBER, as noncommissioned officer in charge of the squadron's Silver Team.
Bowerfind grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. His father was an F-15 Eagle fighter crew chief at then-Elmendorf Air Force Base. Though he grew up around Air Force culture, his first endeavor was studying to become a writer or an English teacher.
Bowerfind said he unfortunately was not the most studious pupil, and he dropped out of college.
In April 2000, he enlisted as a security forces Airman. During Basic Military Training, a TACP recruiter visited his training flight.
“I bought it hook, line and sinker, and I haven't looked back,” Bowerfind said.
After graduating from BMT, the budding battlefield Airman attended six months of training at Hurlburt Field, Florida, where he learned land navigation, long-range radio operations, how to call for close air support, and how to walk for long periods of time cross country carrying heavy weights in his rucksack.
With an assignment to then-Fort Lewis, Washington, Bowerfind attended the Joint Firepower Control Course at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, earning his joint terminal attack controller upgrade. He tried out for an assignment with the U.S. Army Special Forces and was selected, which meant he was required to attend the Basic Airborne Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Bowerfind was training at Desert Rock, Nevada, when he got a phone call. He had six days to head home, gear up, and roll out to Afghanistan.
He would be leaving behind his wife and 4-month-old daughter.
Bowerfind deployed to Khowst province, Afghanistan, in support of the Combined Special Operations Task Force.
A CH-47 Chinook helicopter transported him to the province, but dropped him off at a different location. His pinpoint assignment was Camp Chapman, but the Chinook crew dropped him off at the primary base in the area, Forward Operating Base Salerno, about a 45-minute drive from his temporary home.
He said he saw a few rough-looking men sporting beards and wearing Special Forces-looking gear. He approached them and noticed they were transferring a flag-draped coffin carrying one of their own.
After introducing himself, he discovered they weren't Green Berets, but rather private military contractors who were nonetheless stationed at Camp Chapman.
“It was surreal to say the least, and it was very sobering,” Bowerfind said. “This is not play game time any more, this is the game.”
The contractors brought the young Airman to the camp and introduced him to the Special Forces operators he would be working with. He said he immediately felt out of his element.
“I was really nervous,” Bowerfind recalled. “I was the youngest guy on my team – 23 at the time. At first, I was real excited to go over there, but I was supposed to get some time to train up and get ready, and it was like flash to bang.”
Working with hard-as-nails operators, Bowerfind couldn't help but feel green when he struggled to get his body armor and all of the “kit” that hung on it straightened out.
“I was the only one without a beard,” he said, calling himself the 'hairless Airman.' “I was probably 30 pounds lighter than their lightest guy. I was still setting up my kit.
“I think they saw that,” Bowerfind continued. “They took me under their wing. They treated me like the annoying little brother initially.”
Bowerfind was boots on the ground Oct. 31, 2003. Four days later, he would be squeezed to his limits in the unforgiving crucible of combat.
The Special Forces team's mission was to carry out an armed reconnaissance to Forward Operating Base Lwara. American activity had decreased to nearly nothing around FOB Lwara since the initial invasion, and Bowerfind's team wanted to show presence.
On the way to the FOB, the team encountered a checkpoint on the Pakistan border. Manned by dozens of Pakistani border guards, the team made contact and moved on to their destination.
They stayed a few days at Lwara in an effort to observe enemy activity and hopefully draw out, pinpoint and destroy insurgents firing rockets.
On their way back, the six-vehicle convoy took a different route but had to pass the border checkpoint. The facility was seemingly abandoned. Something was out of sorts.
When Bowerfind's Toyota Tacoma – a vehicle he described as a Mad Max vehicle with a M240 machine gun perched in a welded mount – passed through a dry riverbed, his world exploded.
They were caught in the kill zone – an engagement area where weapons fire is concentrated to destroy an enemy – of an ambush.
According to the narrative for Bowerfind's medal, the enemy positions were approximately 150 meters northeast of the road. They used their higher position to their advantage to exact plunging fire, interlocking their fields of fire for maximum suppression of Bowerfind's team.
“I could look up to the left and to the right, and rounds were coming from both directions,” he said. “We were pinpointed from high ground and two sides.”
The insurgents initiated the ambush by firing a rocket-propelled grenade into the first vehicle.
Bowerfind said he was riding shotgun. “Rick,” a Special Forces medic, was driving, and “Pat,” the team captain from 7th Special Forces Group, was in the back manning the machine gun.
Bowerfind's truck pulled up to support the stricken first vehicle and provide Pat an angle of fire on the ridgeline.
Bowerfind took cover behind the engine block, while Rick hunkered down behind the rear tire. Both returned fire the best they could with their M4 carbines, which were nothing more than popguns in the face of withering machine gun fire.
The Airman said he saw an insurgent who was carrying an empty RPG tube.
“I shot at that guy; he went down,” Bowerfind said. “That was the last guy I saw for the rest of the fight.”
Within the first 30 seconds of the firefight, an enemy round hit the receiver of Pat's machine gun, and he was struck in the forearm. Another bullet perforated the bill of Pat's baseball cap.
After the fight, Bowerfind would discover the insurgents had been waiting for them.
“It was eight to 10 al-Qaida sitting up on that ridgeline knowing we were going to drive through,” he said. “They actually had dug-in fighting positions, and they just waited. They had boxes of doughnuts and food, just camping up there, watching us over at Lwara waiting for us to call it quits and to try and head home.”
With inferior firepower compared to the enemy, Bowerfind's group had little hope of moving out of the kill zone, and they certainly weren't going to defeat the insurgents on their terms.
If something didn't happen quickly, they were going to be overrun.
Fortunately for Bowerfind and his cohorts, help arrived in the form of “Dave,” the team's senior medic, when he guided his vehicle between the ambushing force and Bowerfind's truck.
“I will never forget Dave's face,” he recalled. “He kind of looked like as if he were seeing if we were still alive.”
Dave's Humvee was more suited to fighting back an ambush. “Chris” manned the Humvee's M240, while “Lance” crewed the vehicle's heavy M2 .50-caliber machine gun.
“They started going to town on the ridgeline as best they could, but they started taking the brunt of the fire now,” Bowerfind said.
Though Dave's crew had saved the day for the time being, they too were caught in the ambush. Chris was shot twice, once through each leg. Rick sustained wounds in his buttocks and a knee.
“They kind of got stuck in the kill zone,” Bowerfind said. “Had they not had the guts to come into the kill zone with us, we probably all would have died.”
Soon enough, Dave's crew – overwhelmed by enemy fire – abandoned their Humvee and took cover.
It was in this moment – seconds into the fight – when Bowerfind thought to reach for his PRC-117. The radio, capable of talking through a satellite network over long ranges, was the Airman's primary tool in contacting close air support. It was also their only lifeline at the moment.
Unfortunately, a smoldering hole inflicted by a 7.62-mm bullet cut off that lifeline.
“I looked down at my radio,” Bowerfind said. “I saw the green Harris display, and it didn't really register because I knew it was my SATCOM channel.
“I looked, and there was just a smoking hole in the front of it,” he continued. “Now I have no long-range comms. All I can do is hope one of the other comm guys on the team sent a call out.”
Rick and Pat started talking to each other over the din of the fight, planning how they were going to get out of the kill zone. Then matters got worse.
“That was when the intensity of the fire was at its most,” Bowerfind said. “There were moments when everywhere you looked on either side of the tire and the end of truck, there were rounds hitting everywhere. You couldn't move an inch, or you were going to get hit. That was it.”
Still, Rick and Pat came up with a plan: rally at the Humvee and beeline out of there.
“I remember thinking, 'Man, these are some of the toughest dudes in the world,' because only the toughest of the tough would have the wherewithal to make a joke during a firefight. There is no way I'm running from this truck to that truck with rounds skipping all around.”
It was no joke. Rick yelled some choice words into Bowerfind's face and related in no uncertain terms how the Airman would follow them across the chasm between the vehicles.
“Both of them stood up and started hammering away,” Bowerfind said before describing how he felt in the moment. “Do you ever have one of those dreams you're running away from a monster, and you just can't run fast enough? That's exactly what it feels like.”
Somehow, the operators and their “skinny Airman” made it to the safety of the second truck.
Their plan was to get out of the kill zone using the Humvee as cover.
“Dave had put the Humvee in drive and slowly tried to crawl us out,” Bowerfind said. “We picked Chris up by the body armor and tried to help him walk out.”
Before he knew it, Bowerfind discovered he was lagging behind the safety of the Humvee as he was helping Chris. Life was dangerous enough behind the vehicle, and staying exposed was proving to be an unwise choice as weapons fire poured their way.
Fortunately, a third truck bearing a Mark 19 40-mm grenade machine gun came to the rescue.
“They started laying down extremely accurate Mark 19 fire,” Bowerfind said. “They just peppered that ridgeline with 40-mm fire. They were just lighting it up.”
When the third Humvee broke through with its timely Mark 19 fire, the insurgents decided to cut their losses and run.
Fortunately, one of the communications operators had gotten through to close air support on his radio, granting Bowerfind the opportunity to pick them up on his short-range radio.
“I could hear aircraft overhead,” he recalled. “I could hear the whine of the A-10 [Thunderbolt II], and I'm holding my [radio] over my head sprinting up the hill.”
After establishing good communications with the A-10s, the pilots told Bowerfind they were a ways out. However, the fast movers had communications with AH-64s operating in his area.
It just so happened Bowerfind would have a target for the Apaches to engage in the form of fleeing insurgents.
“My team captain was pointing out two trucks coming out from behind a hill,” he said. “They were in open ground, and they were making a beeline for the checkpoint.”
Bowerfind wasn't going to let the enemy get away.
“Tell them they're cleared hot,” Bowerfind remembers telling the A-10 pilots to relay to the AH-64 pilots. “They are approved to engage. That's the enemy.”
Much to his surprise, the helicopters, which weren't nearby as far as he knew earlier, popped up over the horizon.
“I watched with pretty big satisfaction when two Apaches came out from behind a hill, and one of them lined up on the lead truck and dumped about 300 rounds of 30-mm into those trucks,” Bowerfind said.
The trucks were destroyed – as were the insurgents inside. A battle damage assessment found several RPG tubes and a few machine guns they used to carry out their failed ambush.
Still, the team was in no shape to continue unaided, and they were escorted out of the area and back to Camp Chapman by friendly forces. Their long day had come to an end.
“That was my welcome to Afghanistan,” Bowerfind said.
That others may live
At several points through the firefight, Bowerfind's thoughts wandered to his family waiting at home. He was certainly thinking about them when he got back to base.
“The first thing I wanted to do was call my wife,” he said. “I thought about her and my daughter a lot. Even during the firefight, they would flash through my mind.”
After a few more combat deployments, Bowerfind left the active duty Air Force in January 2007 and returned to his native Alaska. After working as a security guard for a little more than a year, he joined the Alaska Air National Guard to pursue a career as a pararescueman.
Selection as a PJ is not a given, and completing the two-year training “pipeline” is not a certainty either. Bowerfind said he paid for eye surgery to correct his vision, so he could pass a flight physical. He swam every day to prepare physically.
Today, Bowerfind is a pararescueman charged with rapidly boarding an HC-130 Combat King combat search-and-rescue aircraft or an HH-60 Pave Hawk CSAR helicopter to recover U.S. and allied aircrew isolated behind enemy lines.
At home in Alaska, Bowerfind is often called upon to board the same aircraft types to rescue Alaska residents stranded in the oftentimes unforgiving Alaska countryside.
Despite changing jobs, Bowerfind said he still warmly regards his service as a TACP.
Though he changed his Air Force specialty code, Bowerfind is still a battlefield Airman who had unique experience working with Special Forces. Lt. Col. Matthew Komatsu, 212th RQS commander, said he is grateful to have an Airman of Bowerfind's background on his team.
“We're Airmen first and foremost, but the thing that makes us special as battlefield Airman is that we really live in that nexus between the ground and the air,” Komatsu said. “And in this career field in particular – PJs and combat rescue officers – the ground is just as important as the air when it comes to planning and execution. Chris really brings the best of both worlds to his current qualification level as a PJ team leaders.”
The PRC-117 radio that was shot through was inspected by Harris and returned to the Airman as a gift. It sits in his house as a reminder of the explosive ambush, the comrades-in-arms who got him through it, and how he still managed to call to the heavens to rain hell's fury on earth.