Staff Sgt. Nicole Richardson is credited with directing her team in a roughly two-hour firefight in Afghanistan after her team leader was injured. (Air Force)
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Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Robert Powers, center, describes his story during the Portraits in Courage luncheon honoring exceptional airmen. Also on stage, from left: Maj. Shaine Thrower, 2nd Lt. Quianna Samuels, Master Sgt. Delorean Sheridan and Staff Sgt. Nicole Richardson. (Mike Morones/Staff)
As Staff Sgt. Nicole Richardson headed out on a Sept. 5, 2012, resupply mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, she knew it would likely be rough.
She and other troops had encountered insurgent-planted improvised explosive devices several times before, and the location they were trying to reach had only one road in and out — a perfect spot for an ambush.
“We knew that they just did not like us down there,” Richardson said at a Feb. 5 luncheon at Arlington National Cemetery.
Before the day was out, Richardson’s team was struck by a wave of IEDs, one after another. Her team leader and eight other troops were seriously injured by a rocket-propelled grenade, and she stepped up and took command of her team. She directed her team as they helped fight off the insurgents during a roughly two-hour firefight. And she ran across open terrain under enemy fire — twice — to get ammunition when her team’s M-240B machine gun ran low.
Richardson’s actions that day earned her an Army Commendation Medal with Valor and a Marine Combat Action Ribbon. And on Feb. 5, she was one of 22 airmen honored in the Air Force’s eighth volume of Portraits in Courage, a publication that recognizes airmen who have performed remarkable feats of bravery.
“Every airman has a story,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said at the luncheon to honor Richardson and four other airmen profiled in the newest Portraits of Courage. “Some of them will make you just jump up and cheer. Some of them will make you cry. It’s inspiring to know that we are amongst people that will do that.”
Also appearing at the luncheon were:
■Master Sgt. Delorean Sheridan of Pope Air Field in North Carolina, a combat controller who received a Silver Star for engaging 15 to 20 insurgents and saving 23 lives following a “green-on-blue” attack in Wardak province, Afghanistan, in March 2013. His actions were reported in the Feb. 3 issue of Air Force Times.
■Maj. Shaine Thrower of Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., who helped save 54 lives — including his daughter’s — when he realized their schoolbus was on fire and evacuated it quickly.
■2nd Lt. Quianna Samuels of Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. While still ROTC cadet 1st lieutenants, Samuels and two other nurses — now-2nd Lts. Alison Nordlander and Ashlyn McNeely — were traveling through West Texas on April 17, 2013, when a fertilizer plant went up in a massive explosion. Samuels, Nordlander and McNeely immediately responded and triaged dozens of survivors in the midst of multiple fires, massive smoke and the threat of additional explosions.
■Special Agent Robert Powers, director of war fighter readiness and execution at the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Quantico, Va., who saved an elderly man who had accidentally set himself on fire in a grocery store restroom on Feb. 12, 2013.
Richardson is an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the 802nd Civil Engineer Squadron at Lackland, who went by her maiden name of Nellist at the time of the ambush. She and her EOD team were supporting the Marine Corps’ 1st Combat Engineer Battalion in clearing IEDs and keeping supply routes open.
At the luncheon, she recalled the day’s events:
As her convoy drove single-file down a hill into a valley to reach the Marine special operation forces that needed resupplying, two IEDs went off in rapid succession, severely damaging the two lead armored vehicles but leaving the occupants unharmed. The convoy needed to quickly press on to reach the Marine special operators, so they radioed for vehicles to come from the rear and tow the damaged vehicles away.
As one truck made its way down the hill, it hit a massive, 250-pound IED. The bomb flipped the truck backward and onto its side, ripped off its tires and turret, and caused other severe damage. The troops radioed the crippled truck, but got no response and knew they had to help the wounded troops as soon as possible.
A bulldozer, which had been trying to clear a path in the front, pulled around to try to clear the way behind them when it was hit by a fourth IED.
“So now we’re thinking, we’re in the middle of this valley, in an area that we thought was cleared enough by our previous people, we’ve just hit four IEDs — how many more are out there?” Richardson said.
Richardson and other troops ran toward the truck hit by the third, largest IED and saw the gunner was laying face down.
“You could tell he wasn’t moving,” Richardson said. “We knew that he had passed on. As sad as it is, as much attention as you want to pay to the first person that you see that’s laying on the ground, you have to take into consideration that there’s other people out there that might still be alive. And so, we all run to the vehicle and hear screaming, and so we know at least that they’re still alive in there.”
One of her teammates — who she described as a “big, tall, muscular guy, looks like Captain America” — climbed on top of the vehicle, ripped open its heavy armored door and dropped inside. He pushed the two badly injured Marines still inside out to Richardson and a Marine gunnery sergeant, who began conducting first aid and talking to the injured while awaiting the medevac helicopter.
After the two injured Marines and the gunner’s remains were flown out, the convoy towed the damaged vehicles to the top of a hill, where a vehicle hit yet another IED. Nobody was injured in that strike, but the convoy’s leaders decided that, with multiple casualties and five vehicles out of commission, it was time to call the mission off.
As the remaining vehicles were refueling and preparing to leave, an RPG struck, injuring Richardson’s team leader, eight other troops and a K9 dog. As the team leader was about to be evacuated — leaving Richardson in charge — insurgents opened fire.
Richardson used her vehicle’s optics to identify the insurgents’ positions so her gunner could open fire on them, the Air Force said in the Portraits of Courage summary. Richardson and her gunner lost their line of sight on the enemy, so she decided it was time to leave their heavily armored vehicle to get a better firing position.
“I had to redirect my other teammate at least twice to take our machine gun out of the vehicle and move it into a better position,” Richardson said. “Vehicles move around, and everything’s obviously crazy, we’re getting shot at, people are trying to communicate, make sure that everyone is where they need to be to suppress the fire and defeat the bad guys.”
The Air Force said Richardson laid down suppressive fire with her M-4 so her team could set up the machine gun in a better spot. She said she used binoculars to help guide her gunner’s shots. And she twice ran across the field to get more ammunition for her gunner and other troops.
When the battle was over, the Air Force said, Richardson continued helping evacuate casualties to make sure they got back to base safely.
Richardson said that after she returned from Afghanistan, she ran into the two wounded Marines she helped save at the Marine Corps Ball in San Diego. She also stays in touch with the other Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman who was a medic that day.
“They will always be my family, and I am honored to call them my brothers,” she said.