Wednesday, March 11, 2009

81st Fighter Squadron credited for providing critical CAS in Afganistan

By Joachim Jacob

According to latest USAF news, the 81st Fighter Squadron, 52nd Fighter Wing (USAFE), Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, is "indirect" credited for providing critical close-air support (CAS) during an intense 6,5-hour battle in Shok Valley, Afghanistan, on April 6th, 2008. At that time, elements of the 81st Fighter Squadron with 13 A-10s (79-0207, 80-0281, 81-0945, 81-0951, 81-0952, 81-0963, 81-0966, 81-0976, 81-0978, 81-0983, 81-0984, 81-0992, 82-0649) were deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing (455th AEW) at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, as part of USAF's AEF 1/2 (Cycle 7) rotation (January - April 2008).

Please, at first let me post the latest news. During the next couple of days I will add some related archives news.

Related news articles:

Combat controller receives Air Force Cross, Purple Heart

by Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Office

3/11/2009 - POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. (AFNS) -- Tears stood in Sue Rhyner's eyes as she talked about her son, who, in a ceremony March 10 here received the Air Force Cross, the highest military decoration awarded by the service, and a Purple Heart.

Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron from Pope Air Force Base, N.C., received the medal for uncommon valor during Operation Enduring Freedom before a crowd of hundreds dotted with combat controllers' red berets.

The decoration is second only to the Medal of Honor, and is awarded by the president.

"This is overwhelming. I couldn't be prouder," Ms. Rhyner said. "Zac is part of an awesome group of individuals who personify teamwork; something he learned early on being one of five children."

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley presented Sergeant Rhyner the Air Force Cross for his actions during an intense 6.5-hour battle in Shok Valley, Afghanistan, April 6, 2008. The Air Force has not awarded the decoration in more than six years.

"Your actions are now and forever woven into the rich fabric of service, integrity and excellence that has connected generations of America's Airmen since the very inception of airpower," Secretary Donley said to Sergeant Rhyner.

"Rarely do we present an Airman with the Air Force Cross, let alone a Purple Heart, and with good reason. The Air Force Cross is reserved for those who demonstrate unparalleled valor in the face of insurmountable odds."

Secretary Donley added that among the millions who have served, only 192 Air Force Crosses have been awarded.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz also presented Sergeant Rhyner with the Purple Heart. General Schwartz said special forces Soldiers lived to tell the story of the Shok Valley battle thanks to the courage, tenacity, teamwork, as well as the invaluable and selfless efforts of Sergeant Rhyner.

Despite injuries he sustained as the result of persistent insurgent fire, Sergeant Rhyner coordinated more than 50 aerial attacks to continuously repel the enemy during the beleaguering battle that occurred during his first deployment. According to the decoration citation, Sergeant Rhyner "provided suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle against enemy fire while fellow teammates were extracted from the line of fire."

"The team survived this hellish scene ... not by chance, not by luck and not by the failings of a weak or timid foe," General Schwartz said.

The general spoke emotionally and with gratitude for the team's devotion to duty and courage in the line of fire.

"A grateful nation could not be more proud for what you do and no doubt what you will do," the general said.

Lt. Col. Michael Martin, the 21st STS commander, echoed the efforts of Sergeant Rhyner and the aviators from above.

"Zac -- systematically with (F-15E) Strike Eagles, A-10 (Thunderbolt IIs) and AH-64 (Apaches) -- unleashed hell on the enemy," Colonel Martin said. "The enemy had the proverbial high ground that day on those mountain ridge lines, but it was the aviators in the sky who truly held the highest ground."

Colonel Martin credited the 335th Fighter Squadron from Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., and the 81st Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, for providing critical close-air support during the battle. Sergeant Rhyner's demonstration of teamwork among his colleagues and flying units was the linear theme of the ceremony.

For the same battle, an unprecedented 10 special forces Soldiers received Silver Stars, the Army's third highest award for valor in combat.

"It all boils down to teamwork," Colonel Martin said to Sergeant Rhyner. "You did exactly what you get paid to do -- kill the enemy -- and you did a damned good job."

Perhaps Sergeant Rhyner's heroism is bested only by his humility.

"Any other combat controller in the same position would've done just what I did," said the NCO who was a senior airman at the time of the battle.

Sergeant Rhyner's father, Paul Rhyner, said he now has only one expectation for his son and other special forces members in future missions.

"Come home safe; all of you," the elder Rhyner said.


Strike Eagles protect ground forces in massive firefight

by Staff Sgt. Shawn J. Jones
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

3/5/2009 - SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- Ten Soldiers who earned silver stars and an Airman who will receive an Air Force Cross March 10 might not be alive today if it were not for 4th Fighter Wing Airmen providing crucial close-air support during an assault on an insurgent stronghold in Afghanistan's Shok Valley last year.

A 130-man assault force of American and Afghan soldiers was flown into the valley by CH-47 Chinook helicopters April 6, 2008, with a mission to capture a top insurgent target who had been funding the insurgency.

As the assault force assembled near a riverbed in the valley's rocky terrain, two 335th Fighter Squadron F-15E Strike Eagles soared above, providing cover and hunting for potential threats from the insurgents' mountainside village stronghold.

Capt. Prichard Keely, a weapons system officer from the 335th FS here, maintained constant communication with the assault force on the ground as they moved upriver and tried to assess how they would enter the stronghold.

Using the Strike Eagle's high-fidelity targeting pods, he could see the insurgents preparing to attack.

"I could see people with weapons moving around on top of the houses," Captain Keely said.

The view provided by the Strike Eagle's targeting pod and vantage point was useful for more than just identifying threats.

"They asked me to get them the best route of ingress from the riverbed to the village itself," he said. "I chose the terrain that was least exposed to enemy gunfire and the easiest point of ingress, while avoiding the most mountain climbing."

A small group broke off from the main assault force and proceeded along the suggested route. They made it up a few of the mountain's terraces, when he saw a muzzle flash at a village window followed by one from the small group on the terrace, the captain said.

A firefight erupted with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades screaming down from the stronghold at the group on the terrace and the main assault force still in the valley.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner, a joint terminal air controller, was on the terrace. As a JTAC (pronounced jay-tac) and combat controller, his duty is to work alongside the assault force and coordinate air strikes from the ground. As his group was pinned down by enemy gunfire, Sergeant Rhyner called upon airpower to buy the team some time to finish the objective and return the injured to safety.

Sergeant Rhyner requested airstrikes that are considered danger-close, which means the small team of Soldiers on the terrace was not a safe distance away from the target area and could possibly get hurt.

At that point, the captain said "It just got very real."

Additionally, while the main assault force was just within the safe zone of the danger-close air strikes, they were positioned below the target area, which means falling rock and other debris would become a significant hazard.

Releasing ordnance that could harm American servicemembers and allied Afghans presented a moral challenge for Captain Keely.

"It was pretty overwhelming, but you just take a deep breath and do exactly what you are trained to do," he said. "We knew it needed to happen, and we knew it was one of the only ways they were going to make it out of there."

Fighter jets weren't the only aircraft providing close air support. While Sergeant Rhyner coordinated air strikes with the Strike Eagles, Staff Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, another Air Force JTAC with the main assault force, called in airstrikes from Army AH-64 Apache helicopters. After nearly an hour of fighting, two A-10 Warthogs also arrived. Captain Keely said communication between the various aircraft and between the air and ground forces was executed well, which significantly contributed to the mission.

"It was a fully integrated Army-Air Force joint-air attack team," he said.

Combined firepower from the assault force and the aircraft allowed the terrace team to return to the main assault force, though several had been hit by enemy gunfire.

"It was pretty intense," he said. "It was one of the most intense things I have ever experienced, knowing that those guys are getting shot at and knowing there are only a couple of things I can do to try to help them."

Captain Keely, his pilot Major James Scheideman, 335th FS, and their Wingman remained in the fight for three hours, receiving in-air refueling twice, before being relieved by two other Strike Eagle aircrews. While the peak of the fight had passed, it was difficult for the captain to leave before it was truly over.

"We had run out of gas, and we had run out of munitions," he said. "You just wish there was one more thing you could do to keep those guys safe."

By the end of the fight, between 150 and 200 insurgents were killed, according to reports. Numerous American and Afghan ground forces were injured and two Afghans were killed, but without airpower and the aircrew putting needed bombs on target, there could have been countless more.

While Captain Keely said he was most impressed by the heroism of the ground forces that day in Shok Valley, he acknowledges the results would have been much different had airpower not delivered.

"I think there would have been significantly more losses," he said.

Sergeant Rhyner echoed the captain's sentiments.

"I think the situation would have been a lot worse had we not had airpower," Sergeant Rhyner said.

The captain said the Strike Eagle performed admirably. The multi-role fighter jet was designed to excel in fighting environments like Shok Valley. Its ability to carry more ordnance than any other fighter jet combined with its large fuel capacity make the Strike Eagle an ideal weapon for the prolonged close-air support mission.

Having two crew members also offers significant advantages over single-seat fighter jets.

"Task management is really a huge advantage," he said.

The pilot can concentrate on flying, while the weapons systems officer can communicate with ground forces and other aircraft, or both can communicate simultaneously. The captain said splitting task management was particularly useful when his Strike Eagle required an in-air refuel during the fight.

"I can stay in combat mode while the pilot can concentrate on getting to the tanker, receiving fuel and getting back on station," he said.

Captain Keely defers most of the praise from Shok Valley to the ground forces that were in danger and the fighter jet he operates. He remains humble about his personal contributions.

"It makes me want to do more," he said. "In our position, we can make a significant difference in the lives of people in the Army and the people of Afghanistan."


No comments:

Post a Comment