Citation of Distinguished Service Cross, posthumous
CW4 Keith Yoakum,
Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment
1st Air Cavalry Brigade, Multi-National Division (Baghdad)
CW4 Keith Yoakum distinguished himself by gallantry and courage at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty as an AH-64D Longbow Apache Pilot-in Command while providing cover for his wingman on 2 February 2007 during aerial combat against a deliberate helicopter ambush site.
The previous two weeks in the Baghdad area of operations witnessed four separate attacks on coalition aircraft, resulting in the loss of 19 lives and the destruction of one AH-64D Longbow Apache, one UH-60 Blackhawk, and two Department of Defense contracted helicopters. CW4 Yoakum was the first responder to the UH-60 crash site and was intimately familiar with the enemy's helicopter ambush tactics.
CW4 Yoakum was the Pilot-in-Command of the trail aircraft in a flight of two AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopters as they departed on a reconnaissance mission in support of four separate ground brigades on the morning of 2 February 2007. Just when the Apache team began reconnaissance of a test fire area, waves of red tracers and heavy machine gun fire burst into the sky from multiple directions and raked the Apaches. The tracer fire immediately engulfed CW4 Yoakum's aircraft and riddled his fuselage. The enemy had established a deadly kill zone comprised of multiple heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft gun positions. With its interlocking fields of heavy anti-aircraft fire, the enemy ambush site was similar to the earlier ambush site that had downed a UH-60—the same UH-60 that CW4 Yoakum had responded to 13 days earlier, thus familiarizing him with the lethality of the enemy's tactics.
CW4 Yoakum immediately radioed his lead aircraft to maneuver it away from the direction of fire. As the lead aircraft broke hard to the right, the enemy responded, shifting its fire away from CW4 Yoakum's aircraft and toward the lead aircraft. CW4 Yoakum warned the lead helicopter announcing “now you're taking fire!” and the two aircraft broke left to escape the deadly kill zone.
Despite the damage to his aircraft, CW4 Yoakum took personal charge of the team amid the melee of bullets, calmed his lead aircraft, and steered the team out of the kill zone. The team raced to the north to separate from the enemy force and to acquire standoff range to assess the situation. Immediately after their turn to the north, CW4 Yoakum announced that he had “lost utility hydraulics,” a condition that requires the pilot to land the aircraft immediately at the nearest clear landing area. As the senior maintenance test pilot in the company, a prior instructor to other maintenance test pilots, and a Master Army Aviator with almost 5000 flight hours, CW4 Yoakum instantly understood the gravity of his Apache's emergency condition. Furthermore, CW4 Yoakum recognized that the loss of hydraulic pressure prevented him from employing his aircraft's main gun. As a result, he would have to use the aircraft's 2.75 inch rockets from a fixed position, requiring him to skillfully maneuver his crippled aircraft to accurately employ the rockets against the enemy.
The team continued northbound and after approximately two minutes no longer had tracers whipping by their windscreens. Once clear of the immediate threat, CW4 Yoakum had the opportunity to fly his critically damaged aircraft back to the airfield or land in the open desert to conduct an emergency extraction of his crew on his wingman's aircraft. He again announced “we've got no utility hydraulics left.” Still, despite the cockpit warnings and CW4 Yoakum's own recognition of his grave situation, he never considered leaving his wingman and knew this enemy would kill again if left on the battlefield. The enemy had a distinct advantage as a result of their concealed position among the numerous canals and irrigation ditches in the surrounding countryside. Despite the fierce danger inherent in pressing the attack, CW4 Yoakum radioed his wingman that “I can put rockets in” and continued to plan the route back into the withering fire of the enemy's ambush site to destroy the enemy's anti-aircraft positions.
CW4 Yoakum's instructions to his lead aircraft were simple: “you find them, we've got you covered.” CW4 Yoakum knew that his Apache team had a sliver of an opportunity to engage and destroy the enemy before they blended into the Iraqi countryside. The team decided to search the ambush area in a cloverleaf pattern, thereby performing a sweep of the area from all directions until they were able to locate the anti-aircraft guns. Despite his aircraft's crippled condition and the knowledge of the volume of fire that would again rake his aircraft at the ambush site, CW4 Yoakum was determined to cover his wingman as they searched for targets and eliminated the enemy position which was certain to be set up again at a different time and place to destroy coalition aircraft.
Approximately two minutes after the initial ambush had crippled CW4 Yoakum's Apache, the lead aircraft, acting on CW4 Yoakum's instructions, turned south to begin their search for the enemy ambush site. Despite the deteriorating condition of his own aircraft, CW4 Yoakum announced “I'm going to climb up and cover you from high and we're gonna work on rockets.” As he continued losing critical hydraulic pressure, CW4 Yoakum determined that his degraded weapons systems necessitated that he climb to altitude and then dive his damaged aircraft directly at the enemy to provide effective rocket fire. Only by diving from a higher altitude directly toward the enemy position could he provide precise rocket fire for his wingman while focusing his fires solely on the enemy and away from the surrounding villages and homes in the Iraqi countryside. With unmatched skill and extraordinary courage, CW4 Yoakum began his climb to posture his crippled aircraft in a diving position, knowing full well that his climb would give the enemy gunners a clearer line of sight and more time with which to engage his aircraft as he maneuvered back towards the ambush site.
CW4 Yoakum's focus on the destruction of the enemy's anti-aircraft guns caused him to demand as much from his aircraft as he did from himself, but his dying Apache was not able to sustain its altitude. As the Apache team made a second inbound run to the ambush area utilizing their cloverleaf pattern, the lead Apache radioed to CW4 Yoakum to ensure that he was still with them. After transmitting several radio calls and receiving no response, the lead aircraft began a left turn and acquired CW4 Yoakum's aircraft. After flying for almost four minutes in a critical state, CW4 Yoakum's Apache had succumbed to its battle damage and was engulfed in a blazing fire on the ground following a crash that had instantly killed CW4 Yoakum and his copilot.
CW4 Yoakum acted to protect his wingman and destroy an enemy anti-aircraft position designed to produce the continued loss of coalition aircraft. His decision to knowingly risk his life to cover his lead aircraft, despite having the opportunity to land or return to the airfield, put the accomplishment of his mission and the protection of his comrades over his own personal safety. His personal bravery and uncommon valor at the risk of his own life reflects great credit upon himself, the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, the First Cavalry Division and the Multinational Division-Baghdad, and the United States Army.