U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Peter Woken’s HH-60L Black Hawk helicopter only touched down for about a minute amid heavy enemy fire near the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
Those 60 seconds were enough for Woken — a flight medic with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Brigade, Charlie Company Dustoff — and the rest of the medevac helicopter crew to save the life of a German special forces team leader who’d taken a sniper’s bullet to the shoulder.
They were also enough to convince the German government to present the German Medal of Honor for Gallantry in Action to Woken. The 1993 Senior High graduate received the medal — similar to the American Silver Star — Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C.
“The name ‘coalition forces’ isn’t just something that’s thrown about,” Woken said. “The soldiers who fight on the battlefield together have great brotherhood and great respect for each other. The German government coming to do this just drives that point home.”
A video of the ceremony posted on the Youtube website shows Peter Ammon, ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, presenting the medal to Woken.
“He will be the first American to receive the German Medal of Honor for Gallantry in Action here in the U.S.,” Ammon said at the ceremony. “You can be proud of it.”
The other seven members of the medevac team were awarded the same medal while deployed.
On Oct. 7, 2010, the medevac crew was called out to assist a small German special forces team taking heavy fire. Its commander, Cpl. Tim Focken, had been shot by a sniper.
They were off the ground in the Black Hawk in less than 10 minutes and arrived at the battlefield 15 minutes later.
“When we got there, we came under heavy fire” during the approach, Woken said. “There were multiple RPGs, small-arms fire and a sniper.”
The helicopter’s pilot had to quickly turn it 180 degrees to avoid a rocket-propelled grenade and had to circle around after a first landing attempt, Woken said.
Once the Black Hawk came down, Focken, bleeding profusely and with a mangled shoulder, was able to run through a rutted farm field and jump about three feet up into the hovering helicopter.
“His bravery was a key point in us being able to get him out of there,” Woken said.
The bullet struck Focken’s clavicle, went over his shoulder and then through his scapula before exiting his body.
The German government flew Focken into Washington for Thursday’s ceremony, which was the first time the two men had seen each other since the rescue.
“That was the first time I’ve ever seen any soldier that I’ve extracted off the battlefield,” Woken said. “I usually drop them off at the hospital and never see them again. It was very overwhelming.”
Woken was born in California and lived in Oregon before moving to Billings, where he attended high school and met his wife, Lois.
After a short stint at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings, the Wokens moved to Washington state and had two children. While there, he joined the Army.
In his 8-1/2 years of service, Woken has served one tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan. He started as a ground medic before undergoing flight medic training.
“I wanted to do more to help with the war,” he said. “It was just something I really felt could do to help with the war on terrorism.”
The Wokens now live in Fort Hood, Texas, where he is part of the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit, which works with wounded soldiers who need at least six months of rehabilitation care. He hopes to help the Army work with other coalition nations to set up transition programs for their wounded soldiers as well.
At the ceremony, Focken said that it was “a great thing to say thank you personally” to Woken and the crew, according to an Army news release. When the two men chatted after the ceremony, it wasn’t about the mission.
Instead, they talked about Focken’s recovery and his efforts to bring the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps wounded soldiers once they return home, to Germany.
Woken hopes that the rescue, the ceremony and the awards go to show that each nation involved in the coalition is working toward the same goal.
“There are coalition forces out there that do fight alongside us and they do fight just as hard as we do,” Woken said. “They do fight with us and it’s an honor to fight with those other soldiers in the war on terrorism.”