Major Laura Nicholson was the captain of a Chinook launched to rescue and provide urgent medical assistance to a critically-injured member of the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan – the same day she helped save an Afghan mother and her four children
She has become the first female pilot to win the Distinguished Flying Cross in Afghanistan after rescuing a family caught in crossfire between US Marines and the Taliban.
The Army Air Corps officer, 39, defied rockets and rifle rounds to land her helicopter in a war-torn village and save an Afghan mother who had been shot in the head.
During the mission on December 3, 2013, Maj Nicholson’s Chinook helicopter was struck at least three times.
One bullet passed through a 1in gap between armour plates – which are supposed to protect the cockpit – wounding one of her colleagues. At the time, RAF Sergeant Chris Purkiss was sitting just behind her and manning a M134 machine gun.
The impact of the round threw the gunner forwards and he struck an ammunition container perched in front of him.
As Maj Nicholson, from Salisbury, recalled: “When Chris was hit I had this horrible sinking feeling. He’s only a young lad and it was his first tour of Afghanistan. In the back of the helicopter I had the mother and her four distraught children.They had been travelling in a car which had driven between the Taliban and the Marines. The vehicle was riddled with gunfire. I felt responsible for all but as captain I had to let the medics do their job on the casualties and concentrate on climbing back up to a safe height. While Chris was being treated, the co-pilot and I assessed the engine temperatures and pressures for signs of leakage”
“We made it back to our base. Then I had to tell the engineers that we’d broken the helicopter, which was amusing. I also realised just how lucky we’d been to get out of there. The Afghan mother was treated in hospital but I don’t know what happened to her after that.”
The action for which Maj Nicholson was decorated occurred during her fourth operational tour of Afghanistan. In a separate incident on the same day, she also rescued a US Marine who had suffered a gunshot wound to his abdomen during clashes with the Taliban.
Attitudes to women in the armed forces are changing, albeit slowly but as illustrated in the above article there is very little that a man can do that a woman can’t.