Airman's calm under fire saved his unit

March 10, 2009 2:57:54 PM PDT
An Air Force sergeant has earned the Air Force Cross for calling in strikes that saved his Army unit. Despite being wounded in the leg by a bullet, Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner calmly stayed at his post for six hours guiding jet fighters to their targets.It was last April on a mission in Afghanistan's Shok Valley. Three Special Forces teams and a company of Afghan commandos had moved up a narrow cliffside path to a village.

In an instant, the surrounding mountains and buildings erupted in an ambush. More than 200 fighters opened up with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47s, according to Army estimates.

One of the team's interpreters fell to the ground with a head wound, while another bullet hit Rhyner's leg. The mission commander, Army Capt. Kyle Walton, ordered his men to fall back and told Rhyner to start bombing the houses where the insurgents were hiding.

Using the helicopter to mark the bigger targets, Rhyner alternated between firing his rifle at insurgents and rolling onto his back to communicate with the jet and helicopter pilots circling above that bombarded the area with a constant cycle of rockets, bombs and strafing runs.

Trapped on the cliff and outnumbered, half of the team was wounded, including four critically. Walton decided to pull back. Every time a bomb dropped, there was a lull in fire and the team decided to move between blasts.

One of Rhyner's final targets was a large house that overlooked the cliff where the team was trapped. Walton feared that the insurgents might toss grenades down on them, so he ordered Rhyner to destroy it. Low on ammunition, the F-15s had only a 2,000-pound bomb -- four times larger than the other bombs.

"What was going through my head was we don't have another option," Rhyner said. "We are still taking fire. We need it to stop. Bringing that in is the only option to getting the wounded guys out of there."

The bomb dropped and leveled the house, sending a massive cloud of dust and debris so thick that Rhyner couldn't see more than a few inches in front of him.

"I think that was the moment when the insurgents we were fighting called time-out," Rhyner said.

It allowed the team to escape to the valley floor and into rescue helicopters.

The team and Afghan commandos saw two of their comrades killed and 15 wounded. Army officials estimate up to 200 insurgents died.

Lt. Col. Mike Martin, Rhyner's commander, said that there was nothing but heroism on the cliff.

"Walton just had to give him his intent: Destroy all those buildings," Martin said. "(Rhyner) transformed the vague commander's intent and applied that (air) power against it. That is what saved their lives."

Rhyner, from Medford, Wis., and assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, earned the Air Force Cross for his heroism. It's the second highest honor the Air Force can give.

"I am surprised that I am receiving the Air Force Cross, seeing that the last two recipients were awarded them posthumously," he said in an interview last month.

Silver Stars, the Army's third-highest award for combat valor, were awarded to 10 Special Forces soldiers last year for the same battle.


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