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Baptism by Fire: Airman battles 63,000 gallons of burning jet fuel, receives medal for heroism

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First Lt. Nicholas Mercurio, 1st Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., didn’t set out to receive the Air Force Achievement Medal with Valor while deployed with Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar.

“My hope was that I could just go out there and do my job,” said Mercurio.

His job was public affairs officer for the ongoing reconstruction mission in Kunar province. However, three weeks into his first deployment to Afghanistan, Nov. 15, 2010, he was awakened to the sound of his roommate yelling, “We’re under attack!”

At approximately 6 a.m., an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade. The grenade scored a direct hit to a helicopter fuel bladder which was perched at a forward arming and refueling point overlooking the base. The refueling station was the site of armed vehicles, helicopters, rockets, ammunition and more than 60,000 gallons of jet fuel.

The station immediately burst into flames as black smoke and fire towered more than a thousand feet into the air above Kunar province of Afghanistan. The western mountains were covered by the smoke hung over the Forward Operating Base as twisted bits of metal and shrapnel rained down from the sky.

“It was baptism by fire,” said Mercurio, in regards to his first experience with combat. “We trained and retrained both mentally and physically, however, you never know how you’ll react until you’re in that moment.”

“A second RPG was fired into a building near us,” said Mercurio. “It was so close our supply officer said it felt like it gave him a haircut.”

When the fuel bladder was hit, the gas started slowly burning a path down the hill. As seconds passed, the slow-burning fuel became an ocean of gasoline, leaving a trail of fire in its wake and heading straight toward the barracks housing the majority of service members stationed there.

Without any firefighting equipment, Mercurio, along with other service members, immediately took action to stop the fire. They started loading nearby sandbags into a pick-up truck and drove up to the fire to try to stop the blaze.

Sacrificing their own safety, they cut open bag after bag of sand, forcing the fire back uphill inch by inch. Adding to the danger was the .50 caliber ammunition and Hellfire missiles detonating due to the heat on top of the hill.

If that wasn’t enough, there was another variable to overcome. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, stocked with C-4 explosives, were parked on the flight line and engulfed in flames.

One of the MRAPs exploded in the midst of the chaos, flipping an officer backwards. The turret from the MRAP shot across the flight line and Mercurio witnessed one of the doors from the vehicle shoot above his head.

An hour into the battle, firefighters from Asadabad, the capital city of Kunar, arrived at the scene in fire trucks.

“We took turns using the water hoses to fight the fire,” said Mercurio. “Shoulder-to-shoulder, we fought the fire until it felt like we were going to hack out our lungs, then we’d trade with Afghan firefighters and they’d fight it, too.”

Eventually, the team brought the extensive wall of flames under control and kept the fire away from any structures. The fire finally burned itself out.

Mercurio credits his actions to his instincts and the combat training provided to him during his time at Camp Atterbury, Ind. prior to deploying to Afghanistan. In addition, he credits the group of officers that assisted in fighting the fire with him.

Lt. Col. Aaron Burgstein, 1st Combat Camera commander, presented Mercurio with the Air Force Achievement Medal with Valor, Jan. 19.

According to the citation signed by Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command, the valor device was in recognition of Mercurio’s heroic actions in direct contact by an enemy force and his courageous leadership in the face of grave danger. Mercurio was an example to his peers and directly impacted the command’s ability to avoid a catastrophic loss of infrastructure, equipment and personnel.

“It’s not about winning medals,” said Mercurio. “It’s about doing your job. Our job was to help the Afghan people and the better we do that job, the faster we won’t be at war in Afghanistan."

Article by Airman 1st Class Tom Brading, Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs Office