Master Sgt. Thomas Case, a tactical air control party airman, has joined the ranks of the military's most decorated troops.
Case, a TACP airman with the 18th Air Support Operations Group at Pope Field, N.C., was awarded the Silver Star an oak leaf cluster Thursday on Nov. 13 for an overnight battle in Afghanistan in 2009 when he was assigned to a group of Army Rangers in a notoriously dangerous part of Paktia province.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Case is the seventh U.S. military member since Sept. 11, 2001, to receive two Silver Stars. He is one of three airmen to be awarded twice, joining Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas and Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell. Case is the first TACP airman of to join the group. with Villegas and Harvell are both serving as combat controllers.
There have been a total of 12Twelve troops across all services have been to be awarded multiple high valor awards in the past 13 years, excluding classified awards. Sixty-seven total airmen have been presented Silver Stars for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Case, a 17-year veteran of the Air Force, has deployed been on 16 times. deployments to his career. And after the Nov. 13 ceremony Thursday, he said he is "just glad to be home" for the moment.
Case was attached to an Army Rangers team on July 16, 2009, that when they took off after nightfall on a mission to capture a high-level target and disrupt an insurgent training camp in the area of the Khost-Gardez Pass. The lead platoon went in first, with Case and his platoon stepping off about 30 minutes later.
The team faced a five 5-kilometer hike through the mountain pass in the dark to get to the target area. But after marching uphill for about 1,000 one thousand feet, Case noticed that the team was off. They had taken a wrong turn. He turned to tell the ground commander that they should turn around
And then the gunfire started.
"We received contact," Case said. "It started with a couple pot shots, and escalated to a full crescendo with troops in a contact situation."
An enemy machine gun position about 15 meters away and above then starting firing, pinning the ground team down.
Case was in contact with the team's air support, including a manned surveillance plane, and AC-130 gunship and F-15 jets. The AC-130 needed a few minutes to get in position for its first danger-close strike.
"We opted not to employ the F-15s due to the close proximity," Case said. "Knowing I had a gunship that's much more well versed in close-air support, in that specific mission set. That would be the primary fire."
Case stood up during the gun battle, laying down suppressive fire with his M4 and directed five troops to remain behind cover.
"Due to the extreme close proximity of friendly forces to the enemy, and with bullets still hitting within feet of his position, he again willingly stood up while under fire in order to make sure the rounds from the AC-130 hit the correct target area," Case's citation reads.
After the second danger-close strike, Case saw two insurgents running down the hill shooting at him and the team's ground force commander. As they got within 15 meters, Case placed himself between them insurgents and the commander. Directing the commander to take cover, Case shot both insurgents with his M4. They both turned out to be heavily trained foreign fighters, the citation states.
As the battle continued, the enemy moved higher and began throwing grenades at the team. One grenade exploded about 10 feet from Case, damaging his helmet and wounding two Rangers.
He continued to direct more air strikes, calling for six more before he moved to link up with the lead element in order to get eyes on the insurgent's entrenched position.
"With the dust and haze from the airstrikes bringing visibility to near zero, he climbed 50 meters up a 60 degree embankment to reach the fire team leader, all while under enemy fire," the citation states.
Once there, he fixed his radio to call for four more AC-130 strikes on three enemy personnel about 100 meters away. Two more insurgents moved to flank, and Case used using a grenade and his M-4 to kill them both.
"It all becomes a blur to me," Case said. "At the same time, we just kept doing (air strikes) until we had regained our freedom to maneuver. The engagement lasted most of the night. … It could have been 30 minutes, it could have been two hours.
"We just continued to hammer the enemy."
After the battle ended, the team was able to complete its their mission. An after-action report showed 18 insurgents were killed.
"We didn't know how many (insurgents) were there prior to infiltration, we just expected some enemy combatants," Case said. "We didn't expect the fight we faced when we got there."
As the haze cleared, it became apparent that the team's wrong turn was actually a blessing in disguise. The enemy's position had a "commanding view" of the team's original target area, with large-scale weapons directed where the team would have ended up, Case said.
The first Silver Star
The mission came six years after Case received his first Silver Star, for a mission in Iraq. In March 2003, Case was a JTACassigned to Company B, 3d Ranger Battalion while operating in the western part of the country.
During a mission, his team came under heavy fire from small arms, RPGs, mortars, artillery and ZPU-23 anti-aircraft guns. While firing his personal weapon, Case simultaneously directed air strikes.
The battle raged for three days. At one point, the team took more than 300 artillery rounds within eight hours. While exposing himself to direct close-air support, fragments of concrete and shrapnel from the blasts punctured his rucksack and kept knocking him to the ground.
At one point, Case directed 14 aircraft at the same time. Over the course of the battle, Case was responsible for more than 300 enemy casualties, the destruction of 29 tanks, three heavy cargo trucks, nine S-60 anti-aircraft guns, 14 other anti-aircraft pieces, nine 155-millimeter artillery, 22 82-millimeter mortars, six 60-millimeter mortars, eight ammunition caches and 10 enemy boats. His work is credited with ensuring the success and safety of 152 Rangers.
'I just went to work'
In the more than 10 years since the mission for his first Silver Star, Case said he has matured and gained a lot of perspective on what these awards mean for himself and other certified joint terminal attack controllers.
"I told my friends and the guys around me. For that first Silver Star, I was a lot younger, that was kind of for me," he said. "I didn't have the mature enough mindset to understand the ramifications of that.
This is really for my career field. I firmly believe that, of the other certified JTACs, I'm almost positive that 98 percent plus of them would have done what I did. I just went to work that night."