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.
Comment on this story (comments may be published on Air Force Link)
View the comments/letters page