For the first time, two airmen were awarded Air Force Crosses at the same ceremony for acts of valor during separate events in Afghanistan.

Retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller. a pararescueman assigned to the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron in 2002, fought in the 17-hour battle that has become known as the Battle of Robert's Ridge.

Staff Sgt. Chris Baradat, a combat controller assigned to the 21st Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, directed 13 releases of 500-pound bombs and more than 1,100 rounds from A-10s and AC-130s during three hours of fighting in 2013.

The special tactics airmen had previously received Silver Stars for gallantry, but their medals were upgraded as a result of a Defense Department-mandated review of valor awards bestowed for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force Cross is the service's second highest medal for valor in combat.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein officiated the ceremony on Thursday at Hurlburt Field in Florida. 

Retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller's Silver Star was upgraded to an Air Force Cross for his actions during the Battle of Robert's Ridge.

Photo Credit: Courtesy photo


Master Sgt. Keary Miller

On March 4, 2002, then-Tech. Sgt. Miller led a combat search and rescue team to find two service members who were trying to evade al-Qaida and Taliban forces near Marzak, Afghanistan.

Before the MH-47 Chinook special operations helicopter on which he was riding could land, the enemy unleashed rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, causing the aircraft to crash land, according to Miller's Air Force Cross citation.

Three of the team members died and five were critically injured in the crash. Miller trudged through deep snow and crossed open danger areas on the battlefield to aid the wounded troops.

He then removed M203 grenade launcher and 5.56 rounds from the deceased and moved through RPG, mortar and small-arms fire to distribute the ammunition to troops who needed it.

After another attack erupted, killing one of the other pararescuemen, Miller ran through lines of fire to move the wounded to a more covered area, according to the citation.

"His intrepidity and skill led to the successful delivery of ten gravely wounded Americans to life-saving medical treatment and to the recovery of seven servicemen killed in action," the citation states.

Miller told reporters during a teleconference on Thursday that he's honored to receive the Air Force Cross, but he and his team just did their jobs.

"We don't go out there picking missions to try to get a medal," he said. "We go out there to perform what the Air Force has recruited us and trained us to do."

Former Staff Sgt. Chris Baradat's Silver Star was upgraded to an Air Force Cross for his actions in Afghanistan in 2013.

Photo Credit: Courtesy photo


Staff Sgt. Chris Baradat

Eleven years after the Battle of Robert's Ridge, Baradat, attached to an Army Special Forces team, was a member of a quick reaction force that responded to a coalition element pinned down in Sono valley, Afghanistan.

On April 6, 2013, they entered the valley on foot and immediately came under fire.

The special tactics airman ran through a hail of gunfire, engaging the enemy with gun runs from the overhead A-10s, according to Baradat's citation.

He and a handful of his teammates took cover in a small compound about 400 meters from the pinned-down element.

Insurgents fired on both the compound and those who were pinned down, and Baradat realized he couldn't communicate with the aircraft overhead from his protected position.

He moved to the center of the compound — and into direct enemy fire. Ignoring shouts from his teammates to take cover from the machine gun fire hitting the ground all around him, he spent the next three hours directing six A-10 Warthogs and  two AC-130 gunships onto 13 enemy fighting positions with more than 100 fighters, according to the citation.

When the friendly forces consolidated, Baradat jumped onto the running board of a vehicle, again exposing himself to enemy fire, to maintain communications with the aircraft overhead. Because of his actions, the A-10s and AC-130s were able to destroy the enemy attempting to cut off the coalition forces.

"A lot of the difficulty was just coordinating between different air assets that were coming in for strikes and having to move other aircraft out of the way," Baradat told reporters during the teleconference.

But he was just "one piece of the puzzle," he said.

"[The Special Forces team] did a lot of things that were above and beyond, and just as — or more — heroic than what I did," Baradat said.

"Sergeant Baradat's heroic and selfless actions directly resulted in over 50 enemy fighters killed, while saving the lives of over 150 friendly personnel," his citation states.

Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com.