Portraits in Courage Home Page

The "Portraits in Courage" program was developed to highlight the honor, valor, devotion and selfless sacrifice of America's Airmen.

Master Sergeant Michael West is a Combat Controller qualified and very experienced in Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC) and Close Air Support (CAS), In September, 2006, he was attached to one of several Army Special Forces /earns operating near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Sergeant West's team leader wanted to occupy a dominant hill that offered a commanding view of the surrounding areas. As another Coalition team pushed towards the hill, they came under heavy attack and lost radio communications Sergeant West had been monitoring the frequency and took over. He positively identified the friendly personnel and the enemy fighting positions and called in close air support. He directed 6-1B bombers to destroy several buildings where ACM were sheltered. He then cleared several A-l0s for multiple strafing passes against enemy positions. He simultaneously worked with a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) overhead to scan for more targets. His efforts saved the lives of his teammates and enable the team to seize the high ground.

His team was on a reconnaissance mission supporting a larger Coalition forces offensive designed to clear Panjaway Valley of all Anti-Coalition militants (ACM). Intelligence estimated 800-1000 ACM in the district, threatening Kandahar's security.

This opening sequence would lead to a week-long battle for the valley and surrounding terrain. During this time, Sergeant West and two of his JTAC teammates were on the hill, working multiple aircraft, orchestrated by Sergeant West's battlefield awareness and ingenuity for dividing airspace and platforms. The air support included French, British, Dutch, and American fighters, bombers, attack helicopters, AC-130H gunships, and UAVs. In concert with their teams' ground maneuvers, they tirelessly engaged the enemy with airpower until the aircraft needed to refuel or rearm. Throughout the Coalition operation, Sergeant West called in MEDEVACs, controlled resupply airdrops for ammo, food, and water, and coordinated 130 CAS missions including 15 separate troops-in-contact missions.

The Coalition forces achieved decisive victories throughout the district regaining control of the area and killing an estimated 750 enemy combatants. Sergeant West's masterful situational awareness and precise employment of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and CAS assets were vital to the battle's overall success.

Staff Sergeant Dean Conner is a Combat Controller and Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), an expert at the direction and control of close air support (CAS). In October 2007, Sergeant Conner was attached to one of several Special Forces teams operating in a volatile region of Afghanistan.

Sergeant Conner’s team was conducting a routine vehicle patrol when his convoy was ambushed. A rocket–propelled grenade struck his vehicle and knocked him temporarily unconscious. After he recovered, he returned fire with his M-240 machine gun, regained the advantage, and prevented the convoy from being flanked. He also promptly requested CAS to allow the remaining
vehicles to clear the zone.

Ten days later, Sergeant Conner was once again performing JTAC duties when his Special Forces team came under heavy fire. Sergeant Conner immediately coordinated with the ground force commander and requested CAS. He directed a flight of F-15Es onto their first target. As the F-15Es were engaging the first target, Conner was hit in the abdomen by enemy gunfire. In spite of his wounds, and refusing any pain medication that could affect his mental acuity, he coordinated with the flight lead to press their attacks on enemy combatants and protect his team. He continued coordinating CAS missions for 45 minutes until his team was safe and he was able to call for his own medical evacuation airlift.

For his gallant actions and devotion to duty, Sergeant Conner was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and the Purple Heart.

In spring 2007, Staff Sergeant Sean Harvell, a Combat Controller, and his Special Forces team were the leading edge in the battle for control of the fiercely contested Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Months of intense fighting had taken a heavy toll on the team.

On July 25, 2007, the team was tasked to patrol several miles up the Helmand River valley, straight into a Taliban stronghold. The plan was to “move to contact,” a tactic designed to force the enemy to reveal their positions.

From the moment they rolled into the first village, Sergeant Harvell’s team came under heavy fire. The teams fought ferociously, killing dozens of enemy fighters at close range. As darkness fell, an AC-130 gunship notified Sergeant Harvell that the enemy had an elaborate series of trenches and bunkers surrounding his position. As the battle intensified, Harvell directed the gunship to decimate the enemy trench lines. The enemy made frantic attempts to reinforce using motorcycles and trucks. Throughout the night, Sergeant Harvell and his teammates eliminated the insurgents with small arms fire and grenades.

Dangerously low on ammunition, the team decided to make its way out and wait for additional air support. During their movement, enemy fire erupted from every direction. Once they made it back to their vehicles, Sergeant Harvell manned his Humvee’s heavy weapon to suppress the insurgents. At the same time, he coordinated air support. Minutes later, A-10s and an AC-130 gunship arrived and Sergeant Harvell directed precise, devastating attacks on the enemy positions.

Master Sergeant David Beals proved himself a hero through direction of precise close air support (CAS) against a determined enemy in the remote Afghanistan countryside during the winter of 2007.  

On 4 December of that year, Sergeant Beals was part of a 200-vehicle convoy conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol through a route saturated with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). After being attacked by an IED and small arms fire, Sergeant Beals returned a heavy stream of fire from his M-240G machine gun, enabling the convoy to continue on its path with zero casualties.

When his convoy again came under heavy fire from fortified positions the next morning, he called for immediate CAS. For the next 15 hours, he coordinated aircraft attack efforts. He deconflicted 150 friendly mortar calls, providing integration of devastating air-to-ground attacks on the enemy. Sergeant Beals controlled 20 CAS, missions releasing 19,000 pounds of ordnance that decimated the enemy and killed 87, including a Taliban commander. During the same patrol, his team was ambushed by direct enemy fire. With RPGs exploding in the air over their heads, he engaged the enemy with his mounted weapon, killing five insurgents and providing covering fire for vehicles caught in the kill zone. Finally, he simultaneously controlled five attacks and utilized CAS to demolish three compounds, killing 19 enemy attackers. His valiant efforts led to the liberation of a village, ending a nine-month Taliban occupation.

For his actions during this patrol, Sergeant Beals was nominated for his third Bronze Star Medal with Valor.

Then-Senior Airman Zachary Rhyner, a Combat Controller, was deployed to Afghanistan, supporting Special Forces and Afghani Commando units. In April ’08, during a 6 ½-hour airassault raid to capture high-level terrorists, his team was attacked in a complex ambush.

His 10-man element climbed a near-vertical, 60-foot cliff to reach the mountain top objective, while sniper, machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire poured down. Within 15 minutes, enemy forces killed one and wounded three teammates, including Sergeant Rhyner. They were pinned down. Insurgent forces on the high ground maneuvered 40 feet from the team.  With disregard for his own life, and while his left leg was being treated for a gunshot wound, Sergeant Rhyner directed and controlled more than 50 “danger-close” air strikes and strafing runs against an estimated 200 well-trained insurgent forces. The strafing runs were within 100 to 200 meters, hammering the enemy forces with cannon fire, Hellfire rockets, 500-pound bombs, and a 2,000-pound bomb. The blasts showered the team with dirt and debris, but ultimately killed the enemy.

Sergeant Rhyner repeatedly risked his life by placing himself between enemy forces and wounded soldiers. Even while he was lowered by rope from the cliff, Sergeant Rhyner continued to direct fire from aircraft overhead. Additionally, he fired more than 100 rounds from his M-4 rifle to deter the enemy’s advance and protect his team. His selfless actions saved the lives of the entire team, eliminated 40 insurgents and injured another 100.

For his actions, Sergeant Rhyner received the Air Force Cross and the Purple Heart.

While assigned as a Combat Controller attached to a U.S. Army Special Forces Team, Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez brought airpower to bear with precision and expertise, while he and his teammates fought valiantly against a numerically superior enemy force that commanded a significant tactical advantage from prepared fighting positions on high urban terrain.

During an intense firefight, Sergeant Gutierrez effectively engaged the enemy while passing timely situation reports to Coalition aircraft. Suddenly, he felt a pain in his left side and noticed a shooter on the rooftop to his left. He swiftly retaliated with several rounds, subduing the enemy sniper, but as he continued to return fire, the pain worsened. Sergeant Gutierrez called for a medic as he slumped to the ground.

The medic began treating Sergeant Gutierrez for a sucking chest wound and informed the team leader that Sergeant Gutierrez would likely die without rapid evacuation to medical care. Despite the wound, Sergeant Gutierrez continued to coordinate close air support, repeatedly refusing to remove his communications gear to allow for medical treatment. Battling extreme pain and shortness of breath, Sergeant Gutierrez coordinated with two A-10s to conduct a strafing pass on the rooftops adjacent to the friendly position. While synchronizing an airstrike with the team's exit plan, Sergeant Gutierrez donned his combat equipment and prepared to move. Remarkably, Sergeant Gutierrez walked under his own power for two kilometers to the landing zone, where he finally coordinated for a medical evacuation helicopter.

Sergeant Gutierrez's valorous actions not only helped save the lives of his teammates, but also contributed to the subsequent death of the number two Taliban leader in the region.

He was awarded the Air Force Cross from the Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz. 

Staff Sergeant Yuri Miller deployed to Afghanistan for six months in February 2010 as a joint terminal attack controller attached to a U.S. special operations unit supporting the Afghan National Army in the Baghdis Province. On April 6, Sergeant Miller heroically fought enemy insurgents during a harrowing 10-hour firefight.

After completing a night reconnaissance mission, Sergeant Miller’s patrol came under attack.  Rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire from a fortified compound engulfed the patrol. Despite deteriorating weather conditions, small-arms fire, and rocket explosions, Sergeant Miller calmly called for close air support and provided enemy locations to the aircraft above.

The patrol had suffered multiple casualties. In an effort to regain the offensive, Sergeant Miller and other patrol members moved into the enemy compound, engaging targets at close range. Fighting heroically, another teammate was injured inside the compound. Sergeant Miller bravely exposed his position and took out the enemy with his grenade launcher, allowing his patrol to evacuate and treat their injured teammate.

Discovering an extensive tunnel network, the commander realized the potential for further enemy reinforcements was great and he quickly decided to destroy the compound. Again under heavy fire, Sergeant Miller obtained grid coordinates for each tunnel entrance while simultaneously radioing an Air Force B-1 bomber into position for the attack.

Despite the bomber’s attack, the team came under heavy fire from enemy reinforcements while performing a battle damage assessment. Sergeant Miller returned fire at the swarming insurgents, intermittently taking pictures of the damage. The enemy continued to arrive – over 200 strong – bringing heavy fire along with them. Recognizing five enemy locations, Sergeant Miller again called the B-1 in for an attack. With Sergeant Miller’s precise coordinates, the bomber eliminated the threat.

Sergeant Miller’s courageous actions and his ability to control airpower throughout this 10-hour engagement were decisive in killing more than 103 insurgents. Moreover, his valorous efforts singlehandedly saved the lives of 40 fellow service members. For his heroic efforts, he received the Bronze Star with Valor.

On May 4, 2010, Captain Barry Crawford Jr., then a special tactics officer assigned to the 23rd Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron in Afghanistan, and a team of approximately 100 Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos flew into the steep mountains of Laghman Province.  When the team landed in darkness, they heard enemy chatter on their radios. Within 30 minutes of landing, they found a substantial weapons cache inside the village. Captain Crawford also received reports that armed enemy forces were maneuvering into fighting position in the high ground.

As soon as the sun came up, the coalition team came under heavy enemy fire from all sides from over 100 fighters. The team was pinned down in the middle of the village and had no choice but to run the gauntlet of enemy fire. Enemy fighters used sniper and machine-gun fire to target the friendly forces, and as insurgent forces closed in, three Afghan commandos were gravely wounded and two others were killed. Recognizing that the wounded Afghan soldiers would die without medical evacuation (medevac), Captain Crawford ran into the open to guide a medevac helicopter to the landing zone. Even though one of his radio antennas was shot off mere inches from his face, without hesitation Captain Crawford ran across the open terrain, engaging enemy positions with his rifle and calling in AH-64 strafe attacks. This allowed the medevac team to move in toward the casualties. As the casualties were being moved, the team was once again pinned down by enemy forces that were threatening the medevac landing zone. Stuck in an open, narrow valley with mountain cliffs around them, the medevac helicopter took small arms fire and was able to depart with only four of the five casualties. With the enemy only 150 meters away at times, Captain Crawford once again called for “danger-close” attacks from AH-64 and F-15E aircraft overhead. In order to mark the enemy locations, he exposed himself to enemy fire by running more into the open and engaged the enemy while directing airstrikes. As a result, the medevac helicopter was able to return and exfiltrate the last casualty. Throughout the harrowing 10 hour fight, Captain Crawford braved effective enemy fire and consciously placed himself at grave risk on four occasions, all while controlling over 33 aircraft and more than 40 airstrikes on a well-trained and prepared enemy force. More than 80 insurgents were killed during the engagement, including three high-ranking enemy commanders.

For his brave actions that day, Captain Crawford was awarded the Air Force Cross, the second highest military decoration, behind the Medal of Honor, that can be awarded to an Airman.

On January 9, 2012, Captain Blake Luttrell, a special tactics officer, and his element were conducting a helicopter assault in Afghanistan to capture a known insurgent and improvised explosive device facilitator. Captain Luttrell’s element was ambushed by a battle-hardened group of insurgents located 100 meters away. As Captain Luttrell coordinated Army attack helicopters overhead, two Afghan commandos were fatally shot. Moments later, another Afghan commando received a fatal gunshot wound to the torso. In response, Captain Luttrell and a teammate moved forward to pinpoint the enemy while taking direct, accurate fire.

Captain Luttrell then directed Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to suppress the enemy cave complex, which they did with 100 rounds of 30-millimeter shells and four thermobaric hellfire missiles. Captain Luttrell and his element continued to maneuver under hostile fire towards the fortified enemy position, and while clearing a nearby building, his element was attacked by small arms fire from a cave less than five feet away. As one Special Forces Soldier moved around a corner to return fire, he was shot at point-blank range, knocked to the ground, and was subsequently shot again multiple times. Without hesitation, Captain Luttrell aggressively engaged the enemy with his automatic weapon, deployed smoke into the cave entrance, and courageously moved forward despite taking heavy fire. While enemy rounds impacted all around him, he pulled the wounded Soldier from the cave entrance and out of the line of fire.

Captain Luttrell then administered lifesaving treatment to the wounded Soldier by placing tourniquets on both legs. As he conducted first aid, his teammates suppressed the threat, enabling the entire element to maneuver out of the kill zone. Captain Luttrell then coordinated a show of force with attack helicopters and established a helicopter landing zone 200 meters south of the cave to evacuate the wounded Soldier. Once the Soldier was successfully extracted, Captain Luttrell pushed all friendly elements to a safe distance and controlled an Air Force B-1 bomber that dropped a 2,000-pound bomb, destroying the cave and ending the enemy resistance.

Captain Luttrell’s terminal attack control measures resulted in the deaths of four enemy fighters.  During the entire engagement, Captain Luttrell remained under intense enemy fire; yet, epitomizing true heroics, he never wavered during the heat of battle. For his actions, he was awarded the Silver Star Medal.

In March 2013, Technical Sergeant Delorean Sheridan was completing a routine pre-brief for a Combat Control mission at his deployed location in Wardak Province, Afghanistan. While his team loaded gear into their vehicles, an Afghan National Police Officer suddenly turned and opened fire with a truck-mounted machine gun merely 25 feet away. Simultaneously, 15 to 20 insurgents just outside the village engaged the base with heavy machine gunfire.

With rounds striking and killing his teammates surrounding him, Sergeant Sheridan closed in on the gunman with a pistol and M-4 Rifle, neutralizing the immediate threat with deadly accuracy. Still under heavy attack from outside insurgents, Sergeant Sheridan exposed himself to heavy machine gunfire three more times to drag his wounded teammates out of the line of fire to a protected casualty collection point.

Once his wounded teammates were pulled to safety, Sergeant Sheridan directed close air support and surveillance aircraft to pinpoint, engage and eliminate the additional insurgents. During these efforts, Sergeant Sheridan also aided in assessing and moving his wounded teammates, while directing the entrance and exit of six medical evacuation helicopters.

Sergeant Sheridan’s calmness and leadership in the face of danger helped saved 23 lives and allowed for the evacuation of his critically wounded teammates. For these actions, Sergeant Sheridan was awarded the Silver Star.

Deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Staff Sergeant Kyle Fulton, a Combat Controller, integrated airpower in support of coalition ground forces at Jalalabad Air Force Base, Afghanistan on December 2, 2012. Sergeant Fulton and his comrades were alerted to a nearby fire caused by a large explosion. En route, Fulton established communications with aircraft approaching the scene, identified friendly positions, and coordinated aircraft attacks on insurgents maneuvering north of the base’s perimeter wall.

Sergeant Fulton and his team discovered that insurgent forces had explosively breached an entry control point and were engaged in a furious firefight with special operations forces defending the gap in the base’s perimeter wall. Upon exiting the vehicle, Sergeant Fulton began taking point-blank fire from insurgents hiding in the bed of a truck. He returned fire with a teammate and killed two enemy fighters just before insurgents attempted to storm the breach, supported by heavy machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Intense fighting continued and enemy grenades exploded less than 10 meters from Sergeant Fulton’s position, showering the area with lethal bursts of shrapnel.

As insurgent forces detonated a suicide vest just 15 meters from Sergeant Fulton, he and a teammate took cover behind a vehicle and engaged the enemy with 40mm grenades, preventing their position from being overrun. Moments later, an enemy grenade detonated close by, burying shrapnel in his leg. Sergeant Fulton deftly applied two tourniquets to stem his bleeding and, when two teammates shifted to cover his position, focused on directing attack aircraft onto remaining enemy positions.

Sergeant Fulton and his teammates prevented insurgent forces from storming Jalalabad Air Base and allowed isolated friendly elements to evacuate their wounded. For his heroic actions, Sergeant Fulton has been nominated for the Bronze Star with Valor.

While deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Combat Controller Staff Sergeant Michael Blout, averted catastrophe during high-risk combat operations on October 23, 2012. Sergeant Blout and his team entered Chak Valley, a known hotbed of insurgent activity in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. The team split into two elements to patrol through dense, jungle-like undergrowth where one of the elements was ambushed and immediately took casualties.

As he approached a small clearing in the foliage, the team’s chief warrant officer suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his chest and legs. While enemy forces poured unrelenting machine gun and rocket propelled grenades from a nearby tree line, Sergeant Blout, without regard for his own life, dashed into the clearing between his teammates and the enemy.

Sergeant Blout suppressed enemy fighting positions with rifle fire, coordinated AC-130W attacks along the enemy-held tree line, and called for an urgent medical evacuation flight of helicopters to land on his position. As the helicopters made their final approach, enemy fighters increased their rate of fire. Sergeant Blout aborted the aircraft before they could touch down and summoned three teammates to suppress enemy fire sweeping the landing zone. Sergeant Blout then resumed the evacuation of their mortally-wounded comrade as he summoned the helicopters and coordinated an assault against an enemy machine gun position.

Sergeant Blout’s actions in the clearing prevented the loss of a coalition aircraft and prevented the friendly position from being overrun. His heroic actions earned him a Silver Star.