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A combat controller is set to receive the Air Force Cross, the service's second highest medal for valor, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz announced Thursday at the Air Force Association's winter conference.
Schwartz called Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner to stand at the beginning of his speech and detailed how the special operations airman called in air strike after air strike despite being wounded during a seven-hour battle in Afghanistan.
Rhyner, a special operations combat controller and joint terminal air controller assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was part of an air assault on a high mountain valley in Afghanistan on April 6, 2008.
About 40 U.S. Special Forces troops, including Rhyner and another combat controller, and 100 Afghan commandos were helicoptered onto the valley ridges, where they were attacked by an estimated 200 Taliban fighters. About half the U.S. troops soldiers were wounded, but all survived. Two of the Afghan commandos died.
In an interview with Air Force News Service before he learned he would received the Air Force Cross, Rhyner recalled the battle's start.
"Initial infiltration began that day with snow on the ground, jagged rocks, a fast-moving river and a cliff," he said. "There was a 5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up."
The U.S. and Afghan troops expected to find about 70 insurgents.
"We were caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached," said Staff Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, the combat controller with a second team in the battle. "Within 10 minutes, we were ambushed with heavy fire from 50 meters. The teams were split by a river 100 to 200 meters apart, north to south."
During the first 15 minutes, Rhyner was wounded along with three team members.
"I was pulling security when I got shot in the leg," he said. "The rounds hit my left thigh and went through my leg and hit another guy in the foot."
Rhyner remembered the pain and adrenalin.
"There was nowhere to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were trapped by the enemy," he said. "I was calling in air strikes and firing, while moving the wounded down [the cliff]."
By the end of the battle, Rhyner had called in a total of 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs and one 2,000-pound bomb, while firing his M-4 rifle to protect his team.
"If it wasn't for Zach, I wouldn't be here," Gutierrez said.
Rhyner will be the third airman to earn the Air Force Cross since 2001. He will receive the medal March 10 at the Pentagon, an Air Force spokesman said.
The two other airmen to earn the Air Force Cross in recent years were awarded the medal posthumously: http://www.militarycity.com/valor/262885.html">Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, a pararescueman, and http://www.militarycity.com/valor/262884.html">Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, a combat controller, who both died in 2002 during the Battle for Roberts Ridge, part of Operation Anaconda.
Staff writer Mel Gray and the Air Force News Service contributed to the story.
Read more about the goings-on at the Air Force Association Winter Conference at our http://www.defensenews.com/blogs/afa/">blog.