Yuma Guard recruiter serving in 'blessed platoon'

STAFF SGT. Chris Dempsey of Yuma took this photo of a group of U.S. senators, including Chuck Hagel (far left) and John Kerry (far right), who were rescued by Dempsey's National Guard unit after their helicopter was forced down by foul weather.

With his 15-month tour of duty in Afghanistan almost complete, Staff Sgt. Chris Dempsey of Yuma said the unit he is serving with was one of the most heavily engaged Army units in the country last year.

"By the time we walk away from here, we will have been in more than 100 firefights," Dempsey said in a late-night phone call from Afghanistan on Wednesday. "And we are a National Guard unit."

Despite all their battles, which primarily occurred in the Tag Ab Valley, Kapisa Province, Dempsey said the unit defied the odds and never sustained a casualty, earning the platoon a bit of a reputation among their fellow soldiers.

"For a while there, people were going around calling us the 'blessed platoon' because of what we went through and not ever losing anyone. The odds are we should have lost some people, but thankfully we never did."

In an Aug. 8 battle, 13 members of the platoon's 1st Squad were trapped in the Alsay Valley fighting an estimated 90 to 120 Taliban.

"The entire fight ranged from 50 to 200 yards," Dempsey said. "It's like you were looking at each other and slugging it out."

Dempsey said had it not been for the platoon's 2nd Squad, which supported the 1st Squad from long range, due to its position on the other side of the valley, the battle would have been lost.

Dempsey, who is the Army National Guard recruiter in Yuma, is a member of the Phoenix-based 1st Battalion, 158th Infantry unit. The battalion is comprised of four companies, and Dempsey's Delta Company is based out of the National Guard Armory in Yuma.

"Actually I'm the only person in the unit from Yuma," Dempsey said. "When we deployed last year, we actually deployed from the Yuma armory."

Incidentally, Dempsey said, when he was told his battalion would be deploying, he was also given the opportunity to decline and remain in Yuma, which he chose not to do.

"As the recruiter, for several years I enlisted young men and women who eventually deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. I always felt sad in my heart because how could I send these young people off to this war when I have not been there myself?"

At 42 years old, Dempsey, who is a Gulf War veteran with all three battle stars, said he knew he had to go if he ever wanted to be able to face the parents of the young men and women he had enlisted.

"When I left I could not get my small daughter to stop crying. She asked if I had to really go. I hugged her little body and told her yes," Dempsey said. "Now, with pride, I can say I did my part. As I return to Yuma and again assume my duties as a recruiter, I can look those parents and young people in the face and say 'Yes, I was there.'"

One member of Dempsey's platoon, a soldier by the name of Brian Genthe, served in Somalia and took part in the mission featured in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

"He took a bullet to the chest, but his armor saved his life," Dempsey said of the Somalia battle. "He was pulling two people out of the line of fire when he was shot."

Genthe was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions that day.

Dempsey also took part in the February mission to rescue three prominent U.S. senators and a general after their Black Hawk helicopter made an emergency landing in the mountains of Afghanistan due to bad weather.

A second Black Hawk helicopter, which was carrying staffers, was also forced to land. Both helicopters set down on top of a mountain about 14 miles from Bagram Air Base.

"They got lucky," Dempsey said. "The place they set down was the only place they could have."

A quick response force made a treacherous cross-country journey from Bagram Airfield to secure the site and evacuate Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, Combined Joint Task Force commander.

Dempsey, who was conducting inventories in the platoon office when the call came in, said the company had just finished a mission and hadn't been back at Bagram very long. He added they had no idea who was onboard the helicopter when they headed back out again.

"The rumor was it was John McCain," Dempsey said. "That part of the country was Taliban-friendly so you never know what could happen."

In less than an hour after receiving notice of the downed aircraft, Dempsey said, the platoon was making the trek to the rendezvous point.

"It was one of those nights that if someone wasn't in trouble you wouldn't be out," Dempsey said. Limited visibility and the treacherous roads were their biggest obstacles in getting to the site where the helicopters had set down.

"We just kept pushing through," Dempsey said of the hour and a half trek to get there. "The snowstorm was so bad that there were points where we couldn't see the other vehicle, and we were only about 50 feet apart."

When the company arrived at the site, one squad immediately convoyed the senators back to base while the rest of the soldiers, including Dempsey, endured the bitter winds, freezing rain and snow for more than 15 hours through the night guarding the helicopter and its crews until relief arrived.

"We got there about 7 p.m. and didn't leave until 4 p.m. the following day. Of all the units they could have sent out on that awful night, the Guard was the one that went.

"We spent the night guarding the helicopters at 55,000 feet."

The 158th is currently serving in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The unit is deployed throughout the country as "Provincial Reconstruction Teams." It deployed in January 2007 and is scheduled to return later this month.

Dempsey said the platoon finished its last mission Monday and is currently preparing to return to the states.

"We should be back in Arizona by April 3rd," Dempsey said. "In 15 months I have only seen my family once, so I'm really looking forward to coming home."

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James Gilbert can be reached at jgilbert@yumasun.com or 539-6854.

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