Air Force PJ earns AFSA Pitsenbarger Award for heroic actions, treating 7 teammates after Afghanistan explosion

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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael Rogers, 57th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, poses for a photo while deployed to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in the winter of 2019. While deployed, he was a technical rescue specialist and was tasked to recover personnel when required. Rogers was awarded the 2021 Air Force Sergeants Association Pitsenbarger Award for his efforts in treating seven individuals after an explosion. (Courtesy Photo)


By Airman 1st Class Brooke Moeder, 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs / Published April 30, 2021

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) —

He sat back in his chair, recalling the tragic events that took place one night一the explosion, the fire, the confusion.

“The first thing that comes to mind is fire,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Rogers, 57th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, or PJ. “There were so many things covered in fuel and burning. It looked apocalyptic.”

Thinking back to a time before this life-altering event, Rogers explained he worked as a mountain guide and paramedic in Wyoming before he felt the call to join the U.S. Air Force in October 2014.

“I was reaching a place in my previous career where I wanted to take the next step forward, with medicine in particular,” Rogers said. “I started looking into flight-medicine and stumbled across the pararescue career field. On my honeymoon almost a year later, I got a text saying I was leaving for basic training in a couple weeks.”

After basic training, Rogers completed PJ training in just a year and a half, even though the average training time is more than three years. Remaining mentally resilient was essential to finish the training, Rogers said.

“It was a grind to see if you’re willing to commit to waking up, knowing what’s going to happen the next day, and just continue to do it over and over,” he said. “It involved lots of swimming and rucking. It was pretty brutal, but it’s awesome.”

Rogers deployed to Afghanistan in 2017 and again at the end of 2019. During his second deployment as a technical rescue specialist, Rogers was tasked to recover endangered personnel while attached to a U.S. Army Special Forces unit that supported Afghanistan army units against the Taliban.

The missions were designed to help the Afghanistan army get the assistance and training they needed to defend themselves, Rogers said.

“The area we were in was experiencing a full surge by the Taliban, with them trying to take and retake several districts and key cities attached to those districts,” he said. “We were just trying to focus on a few districts that were holes for drugs and equipment, and prevent that from continuing to worsen.”

Sixteen-hour days on foot or in a vehicle was an average day for Rogers and his team. Missions were completed at night to specific locations of interest.

Although, one of those night missions wasn’t like the others.

“Right toward the end of our time there, we had a village that previously received a really bad ambush,” Rogers said. “We counted over 20 rocket-propelled grenades that were fired at our convoy, and two RPGs went right across the hood of our vehicle as we were trying to return fire.”

Locals in the village told the convoy about a compound listed as a Taliban headquarters building, located in a school. In this building they found a large stockpile of artillery.

“There were piles and piles of radio equipment and different kinds of electronics, Taliban propaganda and about 50 to 60 pounds of homemade explosives,” he said. “Ammunition for all different kinds of weapons, mortars and stacks of rocket boosters were also found there.”

Rogers and an SF communications specialist started sifting through the equipment, but two of his teammates asked them to leave the area一a request that saved Rogers’ life.

Other individuals, who Rogers knew and recognized, stayed behind to sort through the pile to identify artillery, including an SF intelligence sergeant, SF communications sergeant and an SF engineer.

“I was looking at one of the guys organizing the pile through my night vision goggles when all of a sudden we saw a flash and heard two bangs,” Rogers said. “We then felt the concussive force from the explosion and immediately thought we were under attack, so we prepared to fire back.”

After the initial confusion and chaos of the moment, Rogers composed himself, realized they weren’t under attack, and jumped into action to assist individuals injured in the blast.

“The SF medic and I started going through the mass-casualty procedures because we knew there had been a bunch of guys near the blast,” Rogers explained. “The engineer was blown over and down into a ditch, and appeared to be unconscious. The communications sergeant was set on fire with RPG fuel after it exploded near him.”

Rogers couldn’t locate the intelligence sergeant at first, but found him on the other side of the stockpile, two meters away from the initial explosion. Rogers assessed his condition and found him in bad shape. To Rogers’ surprise, the communications sergeant had smothered the fire on himself and helped drag the intelligence sergeant out of the stockpile to safety.

“We were able to get a few steps before the kit that the intelligence sergeant was wearing ignited, as it was filled with ammo, grenades and a radio,” Rogers said. “They started going off in his kit and were burning through the material, cooking off the rounds in the bottom of his magazine.”

Before he had time to react, the communications sergeant ripped the burning radio off the intelligence sergeant, in turn reigniting himself. Rogers then had to rip the kit and burning grenades free and throw it away from the intelligence sergeant.

“A TACP (Tactical Air Control Party) arrived and started to help,” he said. “I directed him to start applying tourniquets to three different limbs of the intelligence sergeant that were bleeding heavily. He had a lot of blast injuries throughout his whole body.”

The group didn’t have the opportunity to leave the edge of the stockpile until they could treat the intelligence sergeant’s wounds. They instead positioned themselves between the intelligence sergeant and the ongoing explosions to keep treating. Three different medical bags were exhausted to treat the wounds, but it wasn’t enough.

Rogers helped treat six other of his teammates on the scene. While treating the intelligence sergeant’s wounds, he coordinated a medical evacuation, or MEDEVAC, with the ground force commander. More than an hour later, the MEDEVAC airlifted them to a German surgical center.

“We kept trying to resuscitate the intelligence sergeant as best we could on the way to the hospital,” Rogers said. “After about 30 minutes at the hospital, (the medical staff) assessed his condition and determined he just wasn’t sustainable.”

The intelligence operator passed away later that night, and Rogers stayed with him the rest of the night as his team came to pay their respects.

“The intelligence sergeant was an ultimate professional,” Rogers said. “He’s definitely the best intel operator I’ve ever known. He was key to ours and the Afghan’s success that winter. Being able to hold that region … a large portion of it was due to his efforts. He really cared and believed in his mission.”

Rogers was awarded the 2021 Air Force Sergeants Association Pitsenbarger Award for his efforts that night in Afghanistan. While Rogers expressed it’s extremely humbling to receive the award, he gave credit to the men he was with that night.

“It’s an honor to receive (this award), but I don’t think anyone else in that same circumstance would have done anything different,” Rogers said.

The reason for the detonation was ruled as an accidental discharge into the RPG stockpile by partner forces.

Rogers says the experience has changed him but he’s gained an appreciation for the sacrifices that are made for our country.

“The men I was with didn’t have to work as much as they did,” Rogers said. “Everybody that was there was passionate about their job and doing it right. This loss wrecked our team. Losing families, losing a brother. Those men I was with are our absolute heroes, and I would fight alongside them any day, anywhere.”