Three Special Tactics combat controllers were awarded the Air Force Cross and two Silver Star medals here May 6 for extraordinary heroism and gallantry in the face of danger while on a deployment to Afghanistan in September 2014.
The combat controllers, all from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, were recognized for their superior integration of air and ground power against armed enemies of the United States.
Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presented Senior Airman Dustin T. Temple the seventh Air Force Cross since 9/11.
He also presented Tech. Sgt. Matthew J. Greiner and Senior Airman Goodie J. Goodman the Silver Star medal -- the 31st and 32nd Silver Star medals for the Special Tactics community since 9/11.
"You are the guardians who run toward the sound of the guns and not away from them," said Heithold. "Your bravery, your intensity and your pure guts...you epitomize what being an Air Commando is all about.
"Not everyone deserves to be called a hero...you do," said Heithold.
This is only the second battle in U.S. Air Force history resulting in an Air Force Cross and multiple Silver Star medals in the last fifteen years.
The three Special Tactics combat controllers were embedded with a U.S. Special Forces team in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, when their team infiltrated a well-known enemy staging point by helicopter, Sept. 27, 2014.
Their mission was to disrupt insurgent operations, including drug and weapons cache, and enemy command and control. Their unit came under heavy machine-gun, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire from approximately 100 insurgents who would not back down.
The combat controllers acted on instinct and training and immediately assessed the situation before jumping to action.
“It was unlike anything I could have ever imagined…unlike anything you can prepare yourself for,” said Temple. “It all came back to training for me at that point. I remember thinking back to those days in training that were really tough, and now I realize they were preparing me for something like this.”
A teammate, U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Andrew Weathers, was gravely wounded by a sniper, and Temple put himself in the direct line of fire to drag his wounded teammate from a rooftop. At this same time, Goodman was under a barrage of machine-gun fire, with bullets narrowly missing his head by inches, according to the award citation. Still, Goodman secured his rooftop position in order to repel the insurgent force with close air support and his personal weapon.
With friendly forces taking fire from within 200 meters, Greiner and Goodman began coordinating multiple close air support strikes from AH-64 Apache attack helicopters on the closest threats while simultaneously coordinating danger-close mortar fire on enemy forces 300 meters away.
With a medical evacuation helicopter inbound, Temple once again risked his own life, carrying his wounded teammate across 100 meters of open terrain to a landing zone.
As overwhelming and accurate enemy machine gun fire suppressed Temple and his team, he remained on the open landing zone providing cover fire while his teammates pulled back.
After he returned to the compound, enemy fighters surged within 40 meters after intercepted communications stated, “Take the Americans alive.” Temple immediately directed danger-close F-16 Fighting Falcon strafing runs to repel the assault.
As the supplies dwindled during the 48-hour firefight, Temple braved open terrain several times to retrieve critical ammunition from a resupply helicopter. At the same time, Greiner coordinated precision airstrikes to cover Temple and the other Special Forces team members.
"These Airmen are much of the reason I am standing here today," said U.S. Army Capt. Evan Lacenski, Special Forces team leader for the combat controllers while deployed. "They were faced with one of the most significant battles of Operation Enduring Freedom, in my opinion, and they acted professionally, valorously, flawlessly and executed the mission. I couldn't ask for a better group of Airmen."
The men are credited with saving the lives of 21 U.S. Special Operations forces and approximately 60 Afghanistan commandos.
"These Special Tactics Airmen turned the tide of the battle with heroism and extraordinary competence. I'm privileged to be on this stage with them this morning," said U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Sean A. Pybus, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. "These are the best of us."
The event drew more than 450 attendees, including the Airmen's family, friends and colleagues. Pybus and Heithold both took time to thank the families for their support.
"I want to thank their families for allowing them to serve at AFSOC, and supporting their service... You have our gratitude and our enduring thanks," said Pybus.
The Special Tactics Airmen’s integration of airpower during the battle tallied a total of 80 airstrikes, eliminating a confirmed 38 insurgents, destroying 28 vehicles, 17 buildings and 32 enemy fighting positions.
“Every combat controller I know has the ability and training to do what it takes,” said Temple. “I know that any of those guys would have my back in a situation like this. That’s just the level of expertise and competence in our community.”
The three combat controllers were all awarded the Bronze Star medal for the same tour. Greiner's Bronze Star was with Valor. Additionally, other Airmen of the 21st STS received 19 Bronze Star medals, nine Air Force Combat medals, and more than 40 other medals for their actions for the same deployment, adding to the legacy of the 21st STS, the most highly decorated unit in the Air Force since Vietnam.