During the early to mid-1990s, Yugoslavia,  a multiethnic state of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims was disintegrating and bloody conflict breaking out.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was the scene of some of the worst fighting, where nearly 100,000 people were killed, many of them victims of ethnic cleansing. The United States and NATO got involved in 1992, enforcing a no-fly zone. In 1995 a Serbian antiaircraft missile destroyed an F-16 piloted by USAF Captain Scott O’Grady. O’Grady would escape and evade for nearly a week until rescued by Marine Corps ground troops on June 8th. 

O’Grady was born in New York City in October 1965. O’Grady became interested in flying at an early age. He joined the Civil Air Patrol and got his pilot’s license while just a teenager.

He attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, joined the ROTC, and set his goal to be an Air Force fighter pilot. Graduating at the top of his class in the Air Force, he was given the task of learning the F-16. He flew missions off the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in South Korea. Then stationed in Germany, O’Grady and his squadron would patrol the “No-Fly Zones” over Iraq. 

Later, O’Grady was transferred to Aviano, Italy. At the time, NATO flyers were tasked with supporting NATO ground troops in Bosnia. In 1994, O’Grady was involved with the first NATO air combat mission. On that day, his wingman, Captain Robert Wright, shot down three Serbian aircraft that had struck targets.

More than a year later, on June 2, 1995, once again, O’Grady and Wright were flying over Bosnia when disaster struck. The pilots were aware of fixed antiaircraft sites on the ground, but a mobile SA-6 antiaircraft site, which had been seen by U-2 surveillance aircraft, was not relayed to the pilots. 

The Serbs fired their missiles when the planes were nearly overhead but didn’t turn on their missile tracking radars until the missiles were nearly on the two targets to delay the time the F-16s had to react. The first missile exploded right between the two aircraft. The second SA-6 missile hit O’Grady’s F-16 right behind the cockpit. 

Wright saw the explosion and saw O’Grady’s F-16 break in two, but didn’t see a parachute. Yet, O’Grady had managed to eject and deploy his parachute. Due to the altitude, it would take him nearly 25 minutes to reach the ground. Serbian troops were immediately dispatched to find him. 

Upon landing, O’Grady, burned on his shoulder from the explosion, grabbed his survival gear and tore off into the woods trying to get away from the troops. A man and a boy, searching for him, were just six feet away from his touchdown spot.

Serbian troops, aided by helicopters, buzzed by so closely, he could make out the faces of the pilots. Troops fired into the woods, several times close to where he was hiding, in an attempt to flush him out. 

Relying on his SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training he had received in the Air Force, O’Grady would hide during the day and move only at night. He used his survival radio in just quick bursts to avoid detection by Serbian troops. He soon exhausted his meager water and food supplies.

Rain was constant. O’Grady would collect rainwater with a sponge and put it in a plastic bag. But the rain had soaked him to the bone and he developed a case of trench foot from the wet conditions. He was forced to eat leaves, bugs, grass, and other insects to sustain himself. 

On the sixth night, June 8th around midnight, O’Grady was able to make contact with another F-16 from his squadron using the callsign Basher 5-2. The pilot, low on fuel, was able to confirm his identity and relayed the information to U.S. and NATO troops operating in the area. 

U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Martin Berndt, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge, was ordered to execute a rescue mission. The Marines had two CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters with two Marine Super Cobra gunships as well as two AV-8 Harrier jump jets in support. There was also an identical force on standby in the event they were needed. The rescue force also had two Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes, two Air Force EF-111A Raven electronic warfare planes, two Marine F/A-18D Hornets, a pair of Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts, ground attack aircraft, an SH-60B from USS Ticonderoga (CG-47), and a NATO AWACS radar plane, flying in support of the mission. 

Leave no man behind

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At 0635, the Sea Stallion helicopters approached the area where O’Grady’s signal beacon had been traced. This was the most dangerous time for O’Grady as he popped yellow smoke to mark his position. 

The pilots saw bright yellow smoke coming from trees and the first Sea Stallion touched down with 20 Marines securing a defensive perimeter. Just as the second helicopter landed, O’Grady, still wearing his flight helmet, burst out of the woods and ran, pistol in hand towards the Marines. The second group of Marines never had to even set foot on the ground. The Marines quickly regrouped and took off. They had been on the ground for less than seven minutes.

Those Marines were the heroes, O’Grady said. “I was just doing my job.”

O’Grady returned to the United States with great fanfare. While O’Grady had been deployed, the country had been reeling from the Rodney King riots, the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal office building, and the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco. The country needed a feel-good story to get behind. 

O’Grady later transferred to the Air Force Reserves and now lives in Texas.