Combat controllers contributions honored in ceremony

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kirsten Wicker
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The Air Force chief of staff presented 13 medals to 11 combat controllers during a ceremony here April 29.

Gen. Norton Schwartz pinned three Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with Valor, three Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts on Airmen from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron for their actions during various deployments to Afghanistan. Two of the Silver Stars were presented to a single individual.

"It is truly a pleasure to be among these great Airmen," General Schwartz said. "Integrity, service, and excellence are embodied in every heroic action we celebrate here today."

The ceremony recognized these "exceptional Airmen," as the general called them, who "accomplished enormous feats without very much fanfare or pageantry" alongside Army, Navy and Marine Corps special operations forces.

"The families of these Airmen have forged them into men of uncommon valor," said Lt. Col. Bryan Cannady, the 22nd STS commander. "It is my honor to serve beside them."

Combat controllers are highly-trained special operations forces and certified Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers who deploy undetected into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields and then provide air traffic control and fire support.

Two Silver Stars, the nation's third highest decoration for valor, were presented to Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell for his actions during multiple firefights with enemy forces in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2007.

In the first engagement, Sergeant Harvell and his coalition unit were completing a reconnaissance patrol through heavily contested Taliban territory. The team was ambushed and engaged the enemy in a firefight for nearly 23 hours. In order to coordinate close-air support, Sergeant Harvell deliberately exposed his position. Though surrounded by enemy fire, he continued to calmly direct air attacks, including a fighter strafing run within 45 feet of his own position.

Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Harvell's team was out on patrol when they saw an American helicopter go down. The team immediately began moving toward the crash site for recovery operations.

As the team was en route, they were attacked by an overwhelming Taliban force. Several rocket-propelled grenades impacted Sergeant Harvell's vehicle and he was wounded and knocked unconscious.

After coming to, he was able to engage the enemy with return fire and simultaneously direct deadly, danger-close air attacks on the insurgent force. Danger-close range is when friendly forces are within 600 meters of the target when calling for fire. His team's efforts allowed another special operations team to recover the remains of all servicemembers and sensitive equipment from the crash site.

"I feel privileged that my generation is able to serve our country in war," Sergeant Harvell said. "Being a part of something bigger than yourself, depending on other guys and having them depend on you is an honor. Especially as a combat controller, people are depending on you (in order) to come home alive."

Almost two months later, Sergeant Harvell and his Army Special Forces team became engaged in a savage eight-hour firefight with Taliban forces. The firefight took place after the team spent three days in a rolling firefight with the enemy before tracking them to a compound.

Sergeant Harvell and his team laid siege to the compound, and he repeatedly exposed his position in order to engage the enemy. As reinforcements arrived, the team withdrew from the compound with Sergeant Harvell providing cover fire for his teammates. Once out of the immediate danger area, he directed fighter aircraft and gunship engagement of the enemy with instant success.

"It's an honor that so many people have come out to recognize us," Sergeant Harvell said. "I realize that General Schwartz is very busy, so for him to come out and personally recognize us is truly an honor. At the same time, I feel kind of guilty, because there are so many other guys out there doing the same thing every day."

Staff Sgt. Evan Jones was also honored during the ceremony. He received both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Valor for two separate incidents during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008.

Sergeant Jones received the Silver Star for his actions during a firefight with the enemy when his coalition special forces unit was ambushed during a combat reconnaissance mission.

The team was taking fire from two directions and Sergeant Jones returned fire while orchestrating close-air support. Continually exposing himself to enemy fire in order to coordinate the destruction of enemy fighting positions, Sergeant Jones was injured when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near his vehicle. He continued to direct air support as his team moved through the engagement area, fighting though a gauntlet of 20 enemy combat positions.

"Honestly, I was just doing my job," Sergeant Jones said. "There are 300-plus combat controllers in the Air Force and all of us are just doing our jobs every day, and doing what we are trained to do."

After returning to the fire base, Sergeant Jones coordinated an urgent medical evacuation for a wounded soldier, and directed an air strike against enemy forces preparing to ambush another friendly patrol.

"It's hard to be flawless in a wartime situation, and it's hard for me not to look back and critique my actions," he said. "When I look back and think about the improvements I want to make, it just forces me to train harder and make sure I'm more prepared next time. We had a casualty during this engagement, and several guys were wounded. I think we honor those guys by just continuing to do the best job we can every day."

In addition to Sergeants Harvell and Jones, nine other combat controllers received commendations.

The following were presented awards:
Staff Sgt. Christopher Martin, of the 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan summer 2008. During his deployment, he directed 22 air attacks, five strafing runs and the release of 8,000 pounds of ordnances during two days of fighting.

Senior Airman Mathew Matlock, of the 125th Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his deployment to Afghanistan fall 2008 through spring 2009. During his deployment, Airman Matlock conducted more than 35 mounted and dismounted combat patrols and 40 combat operations.

Staff Sgt. Simon Malson, of the 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan during summer through winter 2008. During his deployment, Sergeant Malson participated in 20 direct-fire engagements, 50 combat missions and controlled more than 100 aircraft flights resulting in more than 125 enemies killed in action.

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Reiss, of the 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan summer to winter 2008. During his deployment, Sergeant Reiss conducted more than 50 combat missions, and delivered air power in five direct-fire engagements, which led to 60 enemies killed.

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Guilmain, of the 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan summer through fall 2006. During his deployment, Sergeant Guilmain was attached to an coalition forces unit where he conducted 20 mounted and dismounted patrols and controlled more than 50 aircraft to include the A-10 Thunderbolt II, B-1 Lancer and AC-130 Gunship.

Tech. Sgt. Christopher Keeler, of the 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his deployment to Afghanistan summer to winter 2008. During his deployment, Sergeant Keeler was attached to four separate special forces teams where he was the main joint terminal attack controller and was also a trainer to Afghanistan's 150 army special force commandos. While deployed, Sergeant Keeler conducted 15 combat missions that lead to 15 insurgents killed.

Staff Sgt. Sean Mullins, of the 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his deployment to Afghanistan summer to winter 2008. During Sergeant Mullins deployment, he conducted more than 30 tactical missions, controlled more than 20 aircraft and facilitated the deployment of more than 5,000 pounds of ordnance that resulted in 50 enemies killed.

Tech. Sgt. Marc Tirres, of the 22nd STS, was presented the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered while responding to a well coordinated insurgent attack on Afghanistan National Government facilities in January 2010. During this mission, he assaulted up three stories to engage a well armed and barricaded enemy. Because of his actions, the entrenched force was destroyed within hours compared to previous terrorist attacks which took days to stop. Upon further clearing of the building an explosive device detonated causing shrapnel wounds to left side of face, arm, and leg as well as his left eye.

Tech. Sgt. Douglas Neville, of the 22nd STS, was presented the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered on a large-scale mission to disrupt insurgent activity in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in January 2010. As enemy rounds grazed his position, Sergeant Neville returned fire, emptying six magazines. Enemy snipers hit Sergeant Neville twice. To escape the deadly fire, Sergeant Neville had no choice but to jump 20 feet off of the building, severely fracturing his foot upon landing.

(Capt. Ali Kojak, 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs and Senior Airman David Salanitri, Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)