On a cold, wet night in Northern Afghanistan in February, Staff Sergeant Keaton Thiem and more than 100 other U.S. and Afghan troops crept toward a compound that they suspected hid Taliban insurgents.
Suddenly, when they were just 35 meters away from the compound, fierce AK-47, PKM machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire erupted from the dug-in enemy. It was heavy and highly accurate, and sparked a 14-hour battle in which Thiem, a combat controller, repeatedly risked his own life to call in airstrikes on enemy fighters and save his comrades' lives.
At one point, Thiem even directed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and Apache gunships while helping carry a wounded teammate on a litter for 200 meters.
For his bravery, Thiem was honored with a Silver Star Wednesday in a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.
"Gallantry is the epitome of our special tactics community every day, along with courage, dedication and selflessness," Maj. Gen. Eugene Hasse, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said in the ceremony.
Thiem, 27, from Austin, Texas, enlisted as a combat controller in 2009 and has deployed to Afghanistan twice. He is assigned to the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron of the 24th Special Operations Wing of Air Force Special Operations Command at Lewis-McChord.
According to the narrative accompanying Thiem's Silver Star, he was attached to a team of Green Berets that was partnered with Afghan commandos. They set out to retake terrain near Nyazullah village in Baghlan province and bolster the local government there, since well-equipped insurgents were in danger of collapsing the Pul-E Khumri district there. In a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Thiem said Taliban forces had cut off power to Kabul, which is south of Baghlan, and rooting out these fighters would be the first step toward getting the power back on.
After being dropped off late Feb. 22, they began a roughly four-hour march to the target. By the time they reached the compound, they were cold, tired and wet. The Taliban had flooded fields to funnel the American and Afghan troops "exactly how they wanted us. We were kind of playing into their hand."
"They waited for us to get close, and then erupted all at once," Thiem said.
Combat controller Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, assigned to the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron of the 24th Special Operations Wing, works in Afghanistan, where he has deployed twice.
Photo Credit: Air Force
The situation quickly deteriorated. Coalition forces realized the insurgents were using night vision to concentrate their fire on the infrared strobes on top of their helmets. Those strobes were meant to keep attacking aircraft from striking friendly troops, but with night vision goggles in the hands of the enemy, "it kind of backfired on us," Thiem said.
Two teams of friendly troops were pinned down by "withering PKM fire repeatedly impacting within inches of their positions," the narrative said.
That was when Thiem first risked death for his teammates that night. It wouldn't be the last time.
Thiem knew he had to start calling in airstrikes if his team had a chance of surviving, but he didn't have the targeting information he needed to direct strikes that were "danger close" to friendly troops. Disregarding his own personal safety, he exposed himself to heavy machine gun fire to get the necessary situational awareness.
He first cleared the two F-16s flying overhead to drop a pair of 500-pound bombs – one within 35 meters of friendly forces, and the other within 80 meters – which allowed them to resume advancing.
That's when the Taliban sprung another ambush, directing machine gun, RPG and mortar fire down the main route toward the American and Afghan formation, wounding eight with shrapnel and gunfire.
Thiem again ran 100 meters through open terrain, dodging gunfire from murder holes and enemy defensive fighting positions, to find a group of friendly troops that had gotten separated.
He directed the F-16s to fly low over the area six times as a show of force, giving his teammates time to find some cover. Once they had reached relative safety, and he knew where the friendly forces were, Thiem called in another danger close air strike that was just 80 meters away, giving them further time to regroup.
As the Green Berets reorganized, the narrative said, they realized four Afghan commandos were missing. Once again, Thiem realized how urgent the situation was and acted fast to save them.
While under sniper fire, Thiem called in more airstrikes on the enemy while directing an overhead drone to find three of the missing commandos, who were wounded. Thiem coordinated an AH-64 Apache helicopter to serve as an escort as he led a small team 150 meters – towards a Taliban machine gun nest – to try to save the commandos.
During the advance, Thiem fought back against the Taliban, while calling in two more 30mm gun runs to cover them. That was when Thiem helped carry to safety one of the commandos on a litter while coordinating the drone and the Apaches.
Thiem told reporters that he and his teammate had to periodically put the wounded commando down to take cover, return fire, and make radio calls to direct the aircraft.
But the fourth Afghan commando was still unaccounted for. So Thiem coordinated another two Apache 30mm gun runs and eight rocket strikes to take out the sniper, which allowed another team to get that fourth Afghan to safety.
Thiem spoke admirably of those wounded Afghan soldiers, and said they "were definitely some of the most loyal Afghans, and definitely the most patriotic Afghans I've ever met."
"It was tough for all of us to see those guys go down," Thiem said. "So it was really no hesitation to run out there and get them."
By the time the 14-hour battle concluded, four Afghan commandos had been killed, three Americans were wounded, and several more Afghans were also wounded. No Americans were killed.
"If not for the courage, calm demeanor and decisive action of Sergeant Thiem, many more friendly lives would have been lost during this ferocious engagement," the narrative said.
Thiem ultimately directed 22 attack and ISR aircraft. During the 18 complex close-air support engagements Thiem coordinated, aircraft dropped 3,000 pounds of bombs, fired 200 30mm rounds, and fired eight rockets, killing 33 Taliban.
But despite the honor of receiving the military's third-highest award for heroism in combat, Thiem said receiving the gratitude of his fellow troops is even more humbling.
"I don't even know if I have words to say what it feels like when they say that you saved their life," Thiem said.