Ryan Welch was hundreds of feet off the ground, strapped to the outside of an Apache helicopter. All he could do was hang on.
He’d given up his seat inside the two-person aircraft to an injured pilot who was riding back to safety.
Welch was living out his mission: Never leave a fallen comrade behind.
“It’s just who we are,” Welch said in a recent interview. “It’s built in.”
Welch’s actions that night in Iraq netted him some attention at the time, and he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Close to 10 years later, the story of that mission is being spotlighted again. His tale is one of nine featured in a recently released book, “Valor: Unsung Heroes from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front.”
Although Welch concedes his actions that night were noteworthy, he struggles to call them heroic.
“Truth be told, I’ve done a lot more dangerous and daring things that have gotten no recognition,” he said. “It’s not about the recognition.”
On Oct. 16, 2004, then-Army Capt. Welch was flying a routine night reconnaissance mission. Welch was the air mission commander, flying with a pilot near Baghdad.
It was a “zero illumination night” — no moon, no city lights.
The two heard a call over the helicopter radio’s emergency frequency. Two helicopters had crashed. Two pilots were dead. Two more were still alive on the ground.
Welch and his pilot headed to the crash site.
“I didn’t ponder one second,” he said. “It was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go.’”
Their Apache flew in low and fast. Welch and his pilot brought the helicopter down, stirring up a cloud of dust that made it difficult to see around them. Welch called on the radio for the two men to come over.
They radioed back. One of the injured men couldn’t walk.
Welch quickly realized that he would be the one to retrieve the soldiers. He told his pilot to leave if they started taking enemy fire.
He stumbled a few times as he ran across a bone-dry landscape filled with thorny tumbleweeds and clumpy soil.
When Welch reached the pilots, both were in shock and bleeding from their eye sockets, though one was clearly in worse shape. Welch and one downed pilot pulled the most seriously injured man back to the Apache.
Welch knew he’d need to use a technique called self-extraction — basically, strapping someone to the outside of a helicopter. He’d been briefed on the technique, but he’d never done it before.
“It’s not a high level of difficulty; it’s just kind of risky to do it, so we don’t do it in training a whole lot,” he said.
He realized that the most seriously injured pilot would not be able to hold onto the outside of the Apache, so Welch made the decision to put him in the helicopter with his pilot.
Welch strapped the other downed pilot to a handhold and sat him on a bay on the side of the helicopter. Then he strapped himself to the other side of the Apache, and they took off.
At first, Welch thought he’d be on lookout, but the high winds being channeled through his helmet forced him to just tuck his head in and hold on. The helicopter flew into an operating base about 12 miles away, where the injured pilots could receive medical attention.
The staff there was surprised when the aircraft flew in — they were expecting a medical unit, not an Apache.
The story spreads
Word of the rescue circulated quickly.
William Ham, who served with Welch in Iraq, said the whole unit knew about it by the next morning. Ham said he wouldn’t call the rescue “ordinary by any stretch of the imagination.”
Welch is like other soldiers, Ham said, in that they are trained to think about the team first and the individual last, which is exactly what Welch did during his mission.
“Ryan, he’s probably the epitome of that,” said Ham, now a chief warrant officer.
Welch calls the time following the rescue mission his 15 minutes of fame. Friends back home heard about the mission and reconnected with him, and news trucks showed up on his parents’ front lawn. The rescue earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is given for heroism or achievement in aviation, according to the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, which is made up largely of recipients. In the past year, three Army soldiers have received the award.
“It’s a very prestigious award,” said Bill Bradfield, chairman emeritus of the society. “It’s something not to be taken lightly.”
But Welch’s focus was less on the award and more on knowing the two injured pilots were safe. Eventually, the hubbub started to fade. Welch kept busy, and his next rotation in Iraq was intense enough to push that night out of his mind.
But in 2011, he received an email from Mark Lee Greenblatt, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney who had set out to tell the stories of people who have fought in modern conflicts.
Greenblatt found everything Welch did to rescue the pilots compelling and his decision to fly on the side of the Apache otherworldly.
“I tried to put myself in his shoes, think what would I have done,” Greenblatt said in an interview. “I don’t think strapping myself to the helicopter would have popped into my mind.”
Welch concedes he was a bit embarrassed at first to have his story shared. But in the end, it was something he felt was important to do.
“It was taking something on a horrible day and turning it into at least a little bit of good news,” he said.
A different world
Last month, Welch, now a lieutenant colonel, sat in the den of his Leavenworth home, wearing his Army fatigues and holding his 2-month-old son, Jack.
Memorabilia from his tours of duty adorned the wall. The “Army Officer’s Guide” rested on a shelf; directly on top of it, “The Baby Emergency Handbook.”
Nearly a decade after the rescue mission, his perspective has shifted a bit. He’s more cognizant of the fact that he has two young sons, and his decisions are more measured. The past couple of years working at the Command and General Staff College on Fort Leavenworth are the longest he’s spent in the U.S. in his military career.
But he misses being with the soldiers. It’s a small part of every soldier, he said — the desire to be on the ground.
After spending so much time overseas, he says it can be disheartening to see that the places he worked in Iraq seem to fall now so easily, but he knows that when he left Iraq in 2010, he felt the country had a good shot.
“I don’t think all hope is lost,” he said. “I think this is going to be a test of their resolve.”
In a year, Welch and his family will move to Washington state, where Welch will take a job as a battalion commander. That means he possibly could be deployed again. And if it happens, he won’t hesitate to go on another rescue mission.
“If the situation was to happen tomorrow, I don’t know if I would have made any different decision,” he said.