SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, SC (WIS) - Two pilots at Shaw Air Force Base are being credited with saving 88 lives all while operating a fighter jet, thousands of feet in the air.
It's because of their bravery that they were recently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal, an honor only given for extraordinary achievements, and that's just what pilots stationed at Shaw Air Force Base are said to have done during a late-night mission in Afghanistan.
U.S. Air Force Instructor Pilots Captain John Nygard and Captain Salvador Cruz said that the night of April 26, 2017, started out as an average day. Cruz and Nygard are both members of the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base.
"It was a normal day, like any other day," Nygard said.
Cruz says he remembers, "just waking up at night. We were flying nights. I remember eating dinner for breakfast."
That smooth start to the day wouldn't last long when the captains were asked to assist a group of Army Rangers fighting on the ground and taking fire from all directions.
"The radios were filled with a lot of yelling, a lot of gunfire in the background and we knew that things were pretty tough," Nygard said.
The pilots took the sky in the dead of night making it even harder to spot friends from foes.
"Things weren't going very well and so we had to pinpoint the enemy locations that were very close, about 15 meters away – so less than a city block from those guys – to d rop weapons on," Cruz said.
Once the smoke settled, the mission was a success! Both men are now being credited with saving 88 lives that night. Cruz says during the battle you don't, "really think about it. When you're in it you just go."
"It's what we've trained for. We're glad that they are willing to trust us to do our job," Nygard said.
After learning they would be honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal, it's a moment that brought on mixed emotions. They say the battle was far from perfect.
"Two guys died that day. I've had the pleasure of meeting both their families'. So, it's a bittersweet situation. I think about those guys every day," Cruz said.
They say the honor goes beyond what happened that night in Afghanistan.
"I'm very humbled. It doesn't just reflect on me. It reflects on our entire team here at Shaw," Nygard said.
The Air Force says Captains Nygard and Cruz juggled multiple tasks while in the air that night: providing support to the ground troops, deploying weapons, and even refueling their aircraft in midair.