Special tactics Airman honored for role in liberating Afghan city

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ryan Conroy
  • 24th Special Operations Wing
It was a 96-hour battle: four ambushes, 17 airstrike missions and the eventual safety of a 150-person team that led to one special tactics combat controller receiving the Silver Star April 7, 2017, at Pope Army Airfield.

Tech. Sgt. Brian Claughsey, a combat controller assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the nation’s third highest valor medal for his role in liberating Kunduz City, Afghanistan, from the Taliban over four days, Sept. 30-Oct. 4, while assigned to a joint special operations team.

"Brian is a consummate special tactics professional," said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Guilmain, the chief enlisted manager of the 720th Special Tactics Group. "His recognition exemplifies the ground combat skill, airmanship expertise, and bravery that our Airmen bring to the joint special operations force."

Claughsey’s medal contributes to his unit’s legacy of valor; the 21st STS is one of the highest decorated Air Force units in recent history in terms of individual valor awards, totaling five Air Force Crosses and 10 Silver Stars since 9/11—there have only been only nine Air Force Crosses awarded since Sept. 11. All have been awarded to special tactics Airmen.

"The teams here aren't seeking any of this recognition; it's really about the job for them, and it’s about the service to our nation," said Lt. Col. Stewart Parker, commander of the 21 STS. “If you saw these folks on a day-to-day basis in the squadron, it's just how we do business."

The night before the four-day battle, Claughsey, attached to a U.S. Army special forces team alongside Afghan National Army forces, was notified that an airfield in Kunduz province was overran by Taliban forces. That night, the joint special operations forces team successfully took back and secured the airfield, with the Afghan army forces maintaining control of it.

The next morning, their team learned the entire city was under Taliban-control—and their mission was to liberate the city of Kunduz. The team planned quickly for the infiltration, borrowing light-skinned pickup trucks from the Afghan army and U.S. Army special forces Humvees to drive a 50-vehicle convoy into the city.

"As we passed the airfield, civilians were leaving in droves, which is a telltale sign that the Taliban took over," Claughsey said. "The state of the city upon infiltration was completely desolate, with the exception of the Taliban."

Shortly after passing the airfield they secured the night before, the convoy was ambushed from a fortified building. Claughsey, riding in the fourth vehicle with the ground force commander, suppressed enemy fire by coordinating an AC-130 gunship strike on the building.

From that point on, Claughsey was constantly coordinating with aircraft above to relay information on the enemy's whereabouts along the route.

"The entire route was covered with Taliban forces, so there were several strikes along the way-- one of the strikes was about 70 meters from friendly forces," Claughsey said. "The AC-130 did a phenomenal job of putting those rounds down and keeping us safe and allowing us to continue on."

Then, the convoy tripped a wire, triggering a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and halting the convoy in its tracks. Claughsey's vehicle was at a four-way intersection and came under fire from two different machine gun locations at close distance. While Claughsey fought back with his personal weapon, two special forces Soldiers in an all-terrain vehicle mounted with an M-240B machine gun put themselves between Claughsey's vehicle and the attackers to protect and suppress the ambush.

"Those two Soldiers who placed themselves between us and the attack were the only reason we survived that ambush," Claughsey said of the two who also received Silver Star for their actions during the firefight.

With the enemy forces fleeing their positions to maneuver behind the convoy, Claughsey quickly coordinated an AC-130 strike and eliminated the threat.

Claughsey and the team secured the Kunduz provincial chief of police compound, where they would continue to be attacked almost constantly for four days and nights.

At the compound, Claughsey received a call for help from an Army special forces element receiving accurate and relentless mortar, grenade launcher and small-arms fire.

"All that was going through my mind was that those guys needed my help and we're all out there together as a team," Claughsey said. "I can't do my job without them and vice versa."

Claughsey neutralized the enemies when he maneuvered to the attack site, coordinated with F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets, and controlled strafing runs from about 140 meters away.

"The precision of the aircraft and the confidence that we have in each other as a team, from the controller on the ground and the aircrew ... we have a lot of faith in each other and they certainly didn't let us down out there," Claughsey said.

A couple of hours later, the Taliban began their final attack on the compound attempting to retake the team's position. Attacked from three sides, Claughsey willingly put himself in harm's way to coordinate airstrikes from the roof.

"I was exhausted ... it was a four-day firefight; however, at a certain point, your training kicks in and takes over," Claughsey said. "This wasn't the first time that I hadn't slept or been stressed out for four days straight -- our training pipeline is two years and it does a really good job of building resiliency and putting you in stressful situations so you can immediately adapt to the situation."

Once on the roof, a special forces Soldier and Claughsey were immediately pinned down by small-arms fire for about an hour. They continuously fought back with their rifles, with Claughsey marking enemy positions with his grenade launcher for aircraft to effectively strike.

Despite rounds impacting less than a meter away, Claughsey controlled two danger-close, 500-pound bombs within 185 meters of friendly fighting positions, effectively stopping the onslaught of enemy forces on the compound—and ending the fight to liberate Kunduz.

Over the course of 96 hours of sustained and intense firefights, Claughsey coordinated 17 separate close air support engagements, with no civilian or friendly casualties, ensuring the safety of the 36 U.S. Army special forces personnel and 110 Afghan partner forces.

“I have absolutely no doubt that the [special forces team] would have taken casualties and would not have been successful if not for Brian on this mission,” noted the Army special forces ground force commander in his eyewitness statement about that mission.

For Claughsey, it isn’t about the recognition; it is about doing his job, and doing it well.

"To hear children playing in the street and people moving back into our homes ... to know that we were successful ... and these people were back in their homes, it was an incredible feeling," Claughsey said.