POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C.—The mountains around the U.S. Special Operations team were nearly vertical as troops made their way up towards an Afghan village.
They had jumped from helicopters into a frigid and fast-moving river, waded through waist-high water studded with jagged rocks, and pulled themselves out up a 5-foot bank and out of the current. The plan was to make their way up to a steep trail to a mountaintop village and capture a wanted insurgent.
But as they climbed with 60-pound packs, the elite unit ran into a well-coordinated and deadly ambush by 200 insurgents. The barrage left them stuck on the steep low ground as machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and sniper bullets rained down from above.
The actions of the team in the six-and-a-half-hour firefight that followed earned one of them, Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, the Air Force Cross—the service's second-highest award for heroism, after the Medal of Honor. Troops in A-Team 3336 from Fort Bragg's 3rd Special Forces group earned 10 Silver Stars, the military's third-highest award for valor, for the operation that day as well. On the ground in Afghanistan, the team worked desperately for hours trying to shoot its way out of its position. At one point, intelligence officials determined that insurgents were 40 feet from team. The Americans were nearly overrun twice. "Some of our smaller weapons weren't effective," recalls Rhyner. The insurgents had surrounded them and the fire kept coming.
As the team's combat controller with the Air Force Special Operations Command's 21st Special Tactics Squadron, it was Rhyner's job to coordinate and call in airstrikes.
Trapped on a 60-foot cliff, Rhyner was shot in the leg within the first 15 minutes of the ambush. While the Special Forces team leader, Capt. Kyle Walton, treated him, Rhyner called in Apache attack helicopters. He also kept firing his M-4 rifle, according to the Air Force citation, and helped move the wounded down a cliff in the hopes of airlifting them out.
Capt. Jeremy Duffey, the pilot of a F-15 that had been monitoring the fight overhead, recalls watching as the troops suddenly came under fire. "It went from quiet to 100 miles per hour in 30 seconds," he says. "They were taking heavy casualties in an instant." The insurgents were "pretty hard to see," he adds. "They were tucked in windows," taking skillful shots. "You see fire being exchanged, and you take a deep breath."
"The toughest part," as Rhyner recalls it, "was receiving fire and not knowing where it's coming from."
Rhyner was in constant radio contact with Capt. Richard Keely, the F-15's weapons system officer flying with Duffey. Ultimately, Rhyner called in 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire missiles, and 192 rockets. "I was in contact with him all the way through. He kept a cool head," says Keely.
Staff Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, a combat controller with a team that was just across the river, recalled in an interview last week that trying to wade the river to reach Rhyner's team was like being a "fish in a barrel." He was shot in the head twice, sustaining concussions, but he was saved by his helmet.
It was five-plus hours into the firefight that the team received intelligence that enemy reinforcements carrying more rockets were roughly 6 miles away.
The Americans made the decision to call in a 2,000 pound bomb to destroy a building in the village. "We'd been working 'danger close,' " says Rhyner, using the Air Force term for calling in bombs so close to U.S. positions that friendly fire casualties are a distinct possibility. "We shot everything we were capable of shooting," adds Duffey.
The decision to drop the bomb was a "serious gut check," he says. "The kill radius is large. I was pretty sure we'd take a couple of friendly casualties."
After the bomb hit, "you couldn't see 2 inches in front of your face," recalls Rhyner. "There were boulders falling down on us."
It was also the "show-stopper," says Keely. The fire from insurgent forces let up, and the team was flown out. The Air Force estimates that 40 insurgents were killed and 100 wounded in the fight. Half of the 40 U.S. troops in Rhyner's team were wounded, and two Afghan commandos were killed.
This week, Rhyner was awarded the Air Force Cross for "extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy of the United States." Two others have been awarded the Air Force Cross for operations during Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, both posthumously; 192 have been given throughout the Air Force medal's history.
The events that took place "are almost impossible to imagine," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said in remarks at the Pope Air Force Base ceremony honoring Rhyner. "You can't imagine the stress they endured for hours on end," he told the crowd gathered in an open hanger. The "unimaginable burdens" borne by Rhyner and his team that day "and perhaps in the days to come will be met with unspeakable gratitude," Schwartz said, "for a debt that can never be repaid."