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Finding the way: Special tactics chief awarded Silver Star

Chief Master Sgt. Michael West was awarded the Silver Star Medal Dec. 15, 2017, at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presents the Silver Star Medal to Chief Master Sgt. Michael West, a Special Tactics operator with the 24th Special Operations Wing, during a ceremony Dec. 15, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. West was awarded the SSM for his actions during a five-day operation, dubbed Operation MEDUSA, in 2006. West utilized 58 coalition aircraft to deliver 24,000 pounds of precision ordnance to eliminate more than 500 enemy forces to secure the safety of 51 American special operations forces and 33 coalition partners. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Chief Master Sgt. Michael West was awarded the Silver Star Medal Dec. 15, 2017, at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, pins the Silver Star Medal on Chief Master Sgt. Michael West, a Special Tactics operator with the 24th Special Operations Wing, during a ceremony Dec. 15, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. West was awarded the SSM for his actions during a five-day operation, dubbed Operation MEDUSA, in 2006. West utilized 58 coalition aircraft to deliver 24,000 pounds of precision ordnance to eliminate more than 500 enemy forces to secure the safety of 51 American special operations forces and 33 coalition partners. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- Their mission was to act as a blockade for a NATO ground operation tasked with clearing an insurgent safe haven. But what began as an ancillary tasking, ended with one Airman decimating the majority of enemy forces and saving his team from devastation.

Chief Master Sgt. Michael West, 24th Special Operations Wing special tactics operator, utilized 58 coalition aircraft delivering 24,000 pounds of munitions, turning the tide of battle, and now he’s receiving the Silver Star Medal.

During a ceremony Dec. 15, 2017, at Hurlburt Field, Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, presented to West the nation’s third highest medal for gallantry against an armed enemy of the U.S. in combat. West’s actions occurred 11 years earlier, when he was deployed with U.S. Army Special Forces teams in support of Operation Medusa.

"This ceremony is about the Air Commando culture epitomized in special tactics and special tactics being epitomized in that chief right there," said Webb. "It's a culture of willingly facing seemingly insurmountable problems; it's about courage, endurance, wisdom. It's figuring out to solve problems and getting 'er done. It's about finding the way."

West was originally awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his actions in May 2007, but due to a recent Defense Department-wide review, his package was resubmitted for an upgrade.

“I am honored and humbled for the recognition, and I wish the (Special Forces) team guys were here to share this,” said West. “It was a great opportunity to work with a bunch of professionals, and I know that I have friends for life.”

As a special tactics combat controller, West is a part of a highly-trained special operations force who integrates air power into the special operations’ ground scheme of maneuver.

"Special tactics is the connective tissue between the ground and air and you can ask our Army and Navy counterparts who will not leave home with Special Tactics," said Webb. "Special tactics exemplifies what it means in that "find the way" Air Commando culture, and West epitomizes Special Tactics.”

Webb said we are living in a “Golden Age” of Special Tactics, citing the 10 Air Force Crosses and this ceremony marking the 42nd Silver Star Medal awarded to a Special Tactics operator since 9/11.

Operation Medusa

On Sept. 5, 2006, then-Master Sgt. West was assigned to three different special forces teams alongside three platoons of Afghan National Army forces during a deployment to Panjwai Village, Afghanistan.

Operation Medusa was a Canadian-led effort to clear a village, believed to be a Taliban safe haven of 700-1000 enemy forces. A Canadian ground force would clear the village from west to east and the special forces teams, alongside West, would set up a blockade position south of the village.

As the NATO coalition ground force began their movement, they were met with fierce resistance, resulting in a crippling amount of casualties that forced them to disengage. In an attempt to salvage the operation, the Task Force directed the special operations teams to seize and hold elevated terrain to observe and attack enemy positions.

“The first day we approached this hill, we met heavy resistance…the enemy saw us coming from the south, and we started to get shot at from tree lines on either side of us,” said West.

At this time, West coordinated airpower from a B-1 Lancer bomber aircraft to drop eight bombs on the enemy and their resupply compound. This was the first time West would utilize airpower to eliminate the enemy, but it would not be his last.

Following that firefight, the teams decided to advance up the hill further to investigate and clear an old enemy compound. Due to the high probability of enemy engagement, West coordinated two A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft to watch over them.

They cleared the buildings and as they began to climb higher, an Afghan National soldier stepped on an anti-personnel mine.

“We were all blown back trying to figure out what happened and once the dust settled, we heard the screaming,” said West. “The soldier was lying there with half of his leg gone, and he was really banged up.”

West and his team leader quickly assessed the man’s injuries, applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and decided he needed to be evacuated. As the team struggled to carry the injured Afghan National soldier off the hill, a vehicle in the team’s convoy hit an improvised explosive device, which triggered a full-on assault from enemy forces.

“As soon as it blew, the tree lines on either side of us fully erupted with gunfire…like they were waiting for that IED to explode,” said West. “We started receiving (rocket-propelled grenade) fire and small arms fire and my team was completely exposed.”

The joint special operations team began to fire back, but West did what multiple special tactics Airmen before and after him have done countless times, he called for airpower.

“I immediately put those A-10s into action and started putting them in gun runs on the tree line,” said West. “I was so focused on ensuring the enemy shooting at us was getting eliminated that I didn’t hear my team leader yelling at me to duck for cover – I was completely exposed up there.”

Multiple gun runs on the tree line allowed his team to move behind cover using the convoy of vehicles.

Eventually, the enemy began to maneuver away from the relentless gun runs and into an open field. This allowed West to call in a dangerously close 500-pound air-burst bomb to eliminate the remaining enemy. That was just the first day.

According to Webb, the special forces team continuously stated, “We knew we could sleep when Mike was working.” Webb said, “There is no higher praise in special operations.”

On the final day of the operation, the team began to clear areas around the hill for remaining enemy forces. They were split into three groups and once West and his team were a few kilometers away, one of the teams was ambushed while clearing huts used to dry grapes.

“I heard my name over the radio and they needed my help – and they needed it quickly,” said West.

His team drove directly at the enemy forces firing from yet another tree line. This time, West utilized two F-18 Hornet fighter aircraft to push the enemy out. West used this as another opportunity to eliminate the remaining forces with another dangerously close 500-pound bomb.

“It completely eliminated the threat,” said West. “It went from a chaotic situation, screaming over the radio, to the enemy is now running away.”

At the end of the five-day operation, West was credited with saving 51 American lives and 33 coalition partners while eliminating more than 500 enemies from their safe haven.