President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10,
Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air
Force Cross to Senior Airman Zachary J. Rhyner, United States Air
Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an
armed enemy of the United States while serving with the 21st Special
Tactics Squadron, at Nuristan Province, Afghanistan on 6 April 2008. On
that date, while assigned as Special Tactics Combat Controller, Airman
Rhyner executed a day rotary-wing infiltration with his Special Forces
team to capture high-value insurgents in a village on the surrounding
mountains. While climbing near vertical terrain to reach their
objective, the team was attacked in a well-coordinated and deadly
ambush. Devastating sniper, machine gun, and rocket-propelled grenade
fire poured down on the team from elevated and protected positions on
all sides, immediately pinning down the assault force. Without regard
for his life, Airman Rhyner placed himself between the most immediate
threats and provided suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle against enemy
fire while fellow teammates were extracted from the line of fire.
Airman Rhyner bravely withstood the hail of enemy fire to control eight
United States Air Force fighters and four United States Army attack
helicopters. Despite a gunshot wound to the left leg and being trapped
on a 60-foot cliff under constant enemy fire, Airman Rhyner controlled
more than 50 attack runs and repeatedly repelled the enemy with
repeated danger close air strikes, several within 100 meters of his
position. Twice, his actions prevented his element from being overrun
during the intense 6 and a half hour battle. Through his extraordinary
heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the
enemy, Airman Rhyner reflected the highest credit upon himself and the
United States Air Force.
Zachary Rhyner is awarded the Air Force Cross..... sent by Wayne Norrad, Johnny
Pantages, & Joe Edwards
In His Own
Words, click above
A Combat Controller is
set to receive the Air Force Cross, the service’s second
highest medal for valor, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz announced
Thursday at the Air Force Association’s winter conference.
Schwartz called Staff
Sgt. Zachary Rhyner to stand at the beginning of his speech and
detailed how the special operations airman called in air strike after
air strike despite being wounded during a seven-hour battle in
Rhyner, a special
operations Combat Controller and joint terminal air controller assigned
to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was
part of an air assault on a high mountain valley in Afghanistan on
April 6, 2008.
About 40 U.S. Special
including Rhyner and another Combat Controller, and 100 Afghan
commandos were helicoptered onto the valley ridges, where they were
attacked by an estimated 200 Taliban fighters. About half the U.S.
troops soldiers were wounded, but all survived. Two of the Afghan
In an interview with
Air Force News Service before he learned he would received the Air
Force Cross, Rhyner recalled the battle’s start.
infiltration began that day with snow on the ground, jagged rocks, a
fast-moving river and a cliff,” he said. “There was
a 5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up.”
The U.S. and Afghan
troops expected to find about 70 insurgents.
caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached,” said
Staff Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, the Combat Controller with a second team in
the battle. “Within 10 minutes, we were ambushed with heavy
fire from 50 meters. The teams were split by a river 100 to 200 meters
apart, north to south.”
During the first 15 minutes, Rhyner was wounded along with three team
“I was pulling
security when I got shot in the leg,” he said. “The
rounds hit my left thigh and went through my leg and hit another guy in
Rhyner remembered the pain
“There was nowhere
to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were trapped by the
enemy,” he said. “I was calling in air strikes and
firing, while moving the wounded down [the cliff].”
By the end of the battle,
Rhyner had called in a total of 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine
Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs and one
2,000-pound bomb, while firing his M-4 rifle to protect his team.
“If it wasn't for
Zach, I wouldn't be here,” Gutierrez said.
Rhyner will be the third
airman to earn the Air Force Cross since 2001. He will receive the
medal March 10 at the Pentagon, an Air Force spokesman said.
The two other airmen to earn
the Air Force Cross in recent years were awarded the medal
Airman Jason D. Cunningham, a pararescueman, and Tech.
Sgt. John Chapman, a Combat Controller, who both died in 2002
during the Battle for Roberts Ridge, part of Operation Anaconda.
Observer; A Pope Air Force Base Combat Controller is
scheduled to receive the Air Force’s second highest award for
valor on March 10 in a ceremony at the Pentagon.
Staff Sgt. Zachary J.
Rhyner will receive the Air Force Cross for his actions on April 6 in
the Shok Valley in Afghanistan. Although shot in the left leg, he
called in airstrikes, fired his M-4 rifle at the enemy and helped move
other wounded people down a cliff.
Rhyner is assigned to
the Air Force Special Operations Command’s 21st Special
Tactics Squadron at Pope. At the time of the incident, Rhyner was a
senior airman who had completed training less than a year earlier.
train for two years at Pope and elsewhere to do mostly covert missions
in hostile territory. The “battlefield airmen” can
parachute or infiltrate into enemy territory to set up drop zones, do
air-traffic control or call in aircraft to shoot or drop bombs on the
enemy. They often work on an Army Special Forces or Navy SEAL team and
fight alongside soldiers and sailors while summoning Air Force
firepower from overhead. The aircraft often are firing near
“friendly” forces on the ground.
is credited with saving his team from being overrun twice in a 6-hour
battle in the Shok Valley. Members of A-Team 3336 from Fort
Bragg’s 3rd Special Forces Group received 10 Silver Stars,
the Army’s third highest award for combat valor, for their
actions in that engagement.
100 Special Forces and Afghan soldiers each were carrying more than 60
pounds of equipment when they jumped from helicopters onto icy, jagged
rocks and waist-deep running water in 30-degree temperatures to assault
a terrorist stronghold in Afghanistan. Their objective was at the top
of the mountains surrounding the valley.
were ambushed by 200 enemy fighters, and Rhyner was shot within the
first 15 minutes, according to an account from the Air Force Special
Operations Command. The team came under fire from all directions from
snipers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Kyle Walton, the Special Forces team leader, treated Rhyner for his
injuries as the airman called in Apache attack helicopters.
called in 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire missiles, 162
rockets, 12 500-pound bombs and a 2,000-pound bomb, Air Force officials
Force officials estimate that 40 enemy were killed and 100 wounded in
is the second Pope airmen to receive the award since Sept.11, 2001. Air
Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, also a Combat Controller,
posthumously received the Air Force Cross for heroism under fire on
March 4, 2002, near Gardez in the eastern highlands of Afghanistan. In
2005, The Military Sealift Command named a cargo ship the MV T Sgt.
John A. Chapman in honor of the ‘‘battlefield
airman’’ in a ceremony at Sunny Point Military
FIELD, FL. -- An Air Force Special Operations Command Airman saved
lives in Afghanistan April 6 during a lengthy battle by calling in
airstrikes to protect his team.
Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, a special tactics combat controller assigned to
the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was
deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom as the primary joint terminal
attack controller while attached to special forces team Operational
Detachment Alpha 3336, 3rd Special Forces Group.
a senior airman, Sergeant Rhyner was part of a 130-man combined assault
force whose mission was to enter Shok Valley and capture a high-value
target who was funding the insurgency. Sergeant Rhyner is credited with
saving his10-man team from being overrun twice in a 6.5-hour battle.
Stewart Parker, the detachment commander at Bagram Airfield,
Afghanistan, was the command and control link to the JTACs on the
ground as they went into Shok Valley.
was the first time U.S. special operations forces entered the
territory," Captain Parker said. "These were extraordinary conditions
and the situation was dynamic."
Valley is located below 60-foot cliffs. The mission objective was at
the top of the mountains surrounding the valley.
infiltration began that day with snow on the ground, jagged rocks, a
fast-moving river and a cliff," Sergeant Rhyner said. "There was a
5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up. The ridgeline trail was out of
The expectation was to encounter fire from about 70 insurgents. One Air
Force JTAC-qualified Combat Controller was attached to each team to
call in airstrikes, if needed.
were caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached," said Staff
Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, a Combat Controller with the second team in the
fight. "Within 10 minutes, we were ambushed with heavy fire from 50
meters. The teams were split by a river 100 to 200 meters apart, north
Rhyner was in charge of coordinating the air assets.
never seen a situation this bad," said Captain Parker, who was
monitoring the situation back at the base. "The intel said the enemy
was 40 feet away from Zach and his team at one point. It was
the first 15 minutes of fire, Sergeant Rhyner was wounded along with
three team members.
pulling security when I got shot in the leg," he said. "The rounds hit
my left thigh and went through my leg and hit another guy in the foot."
Rhyner said he immediately felt pain and adrenalin.
was nowhere to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were trapped by
the enemy," he said. "I was calling in airstrikes and firing, while
moving the wounded down (the cliff)."
Gutierrez said he could see insurgent fire coming from the buildings on
the hilltops above them and was trying to get across the river to meet
up with Sergeant Rhyner.
and I were in constant radio contact," he said. "I could hear the
ammunition, sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades with multiple
blasts. We tried to push to the north to collocate with Zach's team,
but every time we pushed up river, it put us in an open line of fire."
team ran across the freezing river. The water came off the mountains,
and we were 100 to 200 feet beneath the enemy, like fish in a barrel,"
Sergeant Gutierrez said.
enemy surrounded them, Sergeant Rhyner, who was being treated for his
injuries by Capt. Kyle Walton, the special forces team leader, directed
multiple rockets and gun runs from AH-64 Apache helicopters against
was coordinating tremendous amounts of fire on both villages
simultaneously," Sergeant Gutierrez said. "Zach was in charge of the
airstrikes, since he was closest to the fight and could see even what
the F-15 (Eagle) pilots could not."
minutes to an hour had gone by since the fight began.
were pinned down and I could see the enemy all over the hills running
around," Sergeant Gutierrez said. There were no stable targets. I kept
the Apaches and the Hellfire missiles pressed to the north."
sniper, machine gun and RPG fire poured down on the assault force in a
complex ambush initiated simultaneously from all directions as Alpha
Team 3336 ascended the near-vertical terrain. He called in more than 50
close airstrikes and strafing runs.
hours into the fight, Sergeant Gutierrez reached Sergeant Rhyner's
Gutierrez and I met on the cliff during the battle briefly. We shared a
laugh, but it was a busy, bleak situation," Sergeant Rhyner said.
Rhyner had been calling in airstrikes for three hours while he was
injured; however, he still felt responsible for the others who had been
hurt. With disregard for his own life, he tried to get the injured to
safety, still in the open line of fire.
injured personnel in a house and I had to get over there," he said. "I
was frustrated being wounded. I tried to get the bombs there fast and
talk to the pilots who didn't see what I saw on the ground."
six hours into the fight, as it was getting dark, intelligence informed
the JTACs that enemy reinforcements were 10 kilometers away carrying
enemy rockets and missiles.
continued to fight our way up the hill and the (helicopters) came,"
Sergeant Gutierrez said. "Zach was talking to the helos and gave the
coordinates to lay the bombs on the village, while I kept the A-10
(Thunderbolt IIs) and the Apaches out of the way."
Rhyner called in a total of 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire
missiles, 162 rockets, 12 500-pound bombs and one 2,000-pound bomb,
constantly engaging the enemy with his M-4 rifle to deter their
acted fast and shut down the fighting," Sergeant Gutierrez said. "The
wounded were taken out on medevac."
command and control, Captain Parker heard that the helicopters were on
the ground with the wounded but he could not move the helicopters due
to the terrain and weather conditions.
transmissions would block the signal due to terrain and vertical
cliffs," he said. "Helicopters were vulnerable and there was pressure
to do everything we could to get the teams out quickly."
then started rolling into the valley.
8,000 feet, the helicopter couldn't fly (due to altitude) and the
situation called for 'aggressive patience,'" Captain Parker said. "More
than 50 percent of the U.S. forces were wounded, and it was pretty
the end of the fighting, 40 insurgents were killed and 100 wounded
Rhyner was directly credited with the entire team's survival due to his
skill and poise under intense fire.
Rhyner is out of training less than a year and is in one of the most
difficult situations," Captain Parker said. "It is an absolute
testament to his character and the training these guys take. It tells
me we are doing something right."
wasn't for Zach, I wouldn't be here," Sergeant Gutierrez said.
Rhyner received the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
Grateful Nation Award (see photo above) Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C., and
is awaiting the
presentation of a Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered during the
POPE AIR FORCE BASE --
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
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.
helicopter to mark
the bigger targets, Rhyner alternated between firing his rifle at
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
"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.
Air Force captain describes heated U.S. battle in Afghanistan
sent by Tim McCann
Jake Finch , Ventura County Star (Calif.)
Valley mission in Afghanistan a year ago started out as a routine air
support assignment for Air Force Capt. Jeremy Duffey and the other
pilots from his 335th Fighter Squadron.
hours later, Shok Valley would become known as one of the most heated
U.S. battles waged to date in Afghanistan, and Duffey, from Simi
Valley, played a key role in protecting the lives of soldiers on the
28, shared his story of the battle of Shok Valley as it reached its
first anniversary last week.
6, 2008, Duffey, his weapons systems officer and a F15E Strike Eagle
team were to lend protection to three Special Forces teams and a
company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion, about 130 men.
ground soldiers were infiltrating an important hideout for the Hezeb
Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group in the remote mountain region of
Afghanistan. The group harbored a top terrorist who was funding
were the first ones there. We were looking on top, and things were
normal, and we saw the helicopters go in and the guys get dropped
off,” Duffey said, referring to the troops who jumped 10 feet
from helicopters onto rocky terrain while carrying 60-pounds of gear.
Duffey didn’t know then was this region had never been
penetrated by outside forces, even when the Soviet Union occupied the
country, because the topography was so difficult.
valleys and steep mountains, ice cold rivers and there was still snow
on the ground. It was 8,500 feet up,” he said.
taking heavy fire’
and the other air teams tried to direct the Special Forces teams to the
village above, where the mission was to take place.
were trying to give them the easiest route that we can see to get
there,” he said.
frantic call came over the radio from Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, a
joint terminal air controller with the Air Force, who was embedded with
the Army unit to coordinate airstrikes from the ground. The unit was
ambushed by hundreds of insurgents from the mountain terraces.
The village they’re going to is built into the side of a
mountain and there’s a winding mountain road with hairpin
turns,” Duffey said. “It’s almost
vertical. As they’re climbing up these terraces, they start
taking heavy fire.”
rocket launchers, machine guns and AK47s rained fire on the ground
looking on our screens. We can see the shooting flashes. But we
don’t know what’s going on. Rhyner is the main guy
we’re talking too. He’s calling, saying,
‘We’re taking heavy fire. We’ve got
know it’s bad when you’re hearing people die on the
radio,” Duffey said.
first instinct was to start dropping all the bombs he carried.
want to make something happen. But that’s when the training
kicks in and you have to relax and know where you’re going
before you start dropping.”
vantage point was the most important in keeping the soldiers alive.
cleared us in for some strikes, to hit some buildings just up the slope
from him. It was really close (to him). What you want to happen is to
make the bad guys go away, but if it’s too close to the
‘friendlies,’ you can injure or kill them.
That’s the worst thing you could do.”
hours Rhyner called in hot spots and directed fire power, even after he
was shot in the thigh by a sniper’s bullet. Around him,
fellow soldiers were getting hit by gun fire.
sky, Duffey and his squadron fired on the insurgents and dropped bombs
until fuel ran low. Then they flew to a fuel tanker 20 minutes away,
loaded up and returned to the fight. Soon the Strike Eagles and the
Apache helicopters were joined by A64 and A10 jets.
end of the six-hour battle, Duffey dropped his largest bomb:1 ton. It
finally quieted enough on the ground to bring back the MedEvac
first time they had a MedEvac helicopter get in there, it was getting
fired on pretty bad. (The helicopter pilot had been shot.) It had to
leave and come back,” Duffey said.
American soldiers suffered heavy injuries, but no one was killed. Two
soldiers from the Afghan commandos were killed. Estimates are that
between 150 and 200 insurgents were killed.
was there until the end.
the ‘intel’ estimates, there were a lot more guys
there (than we thought), and they had pretty heavy
firepower,” he said. “They actually ran cables
across the valley to prevent helicopters from getting there.
city was built into the mountain. It wasn’t looking so good
when we left,” he said.”
Duffey and his squad made it back to the airfield, it wasn’t
elation or relief that he felt.
I thought we were going to be in trouble,” he said.
don’t really go into a place and plan on taking out a
village. It’s totally not what it’s about. But the
ground commander, the guy who’s controlling the forces on the
ground, to protect his guys, he declared all the buildings as hostile.
And that was what it was going to take,” Duffey said.
“(Our guys) were literally surrounded with fire.”
airfield, he and his fellow pilots reviewed all the tapes, the commands
and the procedures. They reviewed every action they took against every
rule they are required to follow.
drop, every straight pass we made, we were able to justify it. The
higher-ups backed us and said we did a great job,” Duffey
were still alive’
that night, Duffey and the other flight teams went to the hospital
where the Americans and Afghan commandos were being treated.
was good to see they were still alive. It’s a different war
for those guys than what it is for us,” he said.
the battle, 10 Silver Stars — the most for any battle in
Afghanistan so far—were awarded to the soldiers participating
from Shok Valley. Rhyner, as an airman, was honored with the Air Force
Cross in March. More commendations may be planned.
never believed he’d become an Air Force jet pilot. He started
his military career working as an avionics technician for Air Force
planes, and dreamed of flying one day. He talked to others about the
process, earned his bachelor’s degree and was accepted into
the back of my mind, I wanted to do it, but I never thought I
would,” he said.
with his wife and two small children in North Carolina, Duffey, a 1998
Simi Valley High School graduate, still has family in the area. He
continues to support the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and may be
“I tell people who
don’t get the big picture and don’t know
what’s going on that right now there are bad people out there
who are planning ways to kill Americans,” Duffey said.
“If we don’t do something about it, it’s
going to get worse. Plus we made a promise to them. We went into their
country and said we’re going to make it better for them. We
have to stand up and keep our promise.”
Zachary Rhyner saluted Sunday for Operation Fan Mail
12-23-2013; The Green Bay Packers and WPS Health
Insurance paid special tribute to U.S. Air Force Tech Sergeant Zachary
Rhyner, of Medford, Wis., during Sunday’s Packers-Steelers game
for 'Operation Fan Mail.'
Rhyner is a Combat Controller in the Air Force and
is responsible for coordinating air strikes and other air-to-ground
assets for special operations forces teams. He is stationed at Fort
Bragg in North Carolina, and has been deployed six times, including
tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a humanitarian assistance
operation in Haiti.
In addition to two Purple Heart awards and a
Bronze Star, Rhyner received the Air Force Cross for his actions in the
Battle of Shok Valley during the War in Afghanistan. He was the first
living, and second ever, Combat Controller to receive the Air Force
Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor for heroism in
combat. He was injured in his most recent deployment, suffering nerve
damage and shattering his hip, and is currently recovering.
Rhyner attended the game with his mother, Sue, his father, Paul and his brother, Luke.
Operation Fan Mail, which debuted in 2007, is
designed to recognize families with a member who is on active duty. The
Packers and WPS Health Insurance will host a family at each 2013 home
game and recognize them on the field during pregame activities. A total
of 64 families have been recognized with through the program.
To choose families, the Packers and WPS Health
Insurance are asking interested families, or friends of eligible
families, to submit an essay, 500 words or less, on why a particular
fan should be saluted. Essays can be sent to: Operation Fan Mail, P.O.
Box 10628, Green Bay, WI, 54307-0628. Essays also can be submitted to
the Packers online at packers.com/gameday/gameday_promotions/operation_fan_mail.
Families intended for recognition are those that
have a member serving on active duty. The family member can be a
spouse, mother, father, son, daughter or sibling.
In addition to being recognized on-field prior to
the game, selected families receive four tickets to the game and a care
package from WPS.