POPE FIELD, N.C. — The team had been repeatedly warned: Fighters in Helmand Province were different than in other parts of Afghanistan. These Taliban fought until the death. They were better trained, and unafraid of aircraft.

The coalition group of Army —Special Forces, Afghan commandos and Air Force combat controllers reached Helmand in August, after months of fighting in Kandahar Province. In September, a battle to reclaim part of the Helmand River Valley turned into one that the team's leader calls "one of the most significant in Operation Enduring Freedom."

Hours into the fight the men found themselves surrounded and outgunned by dozens of insurgents closing in on their compound.

"Take the Americans alive," the insurgent leader said on an intercepted radio call.

Three combat controllers — Senior Airman Dustin Temple, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Greiner and Senior Airman Goodie Goodman — helped the team turn the tide of the battle, with dozens of airstrikes during 48 hours of fighting. For their actions, Greiner and Goodman received the Silver Star in a May 6 ceremony here.

Temple, in addition to calling airstrikes, repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, resupplying his team and retrieving a mortally injured soldier. For his actions, Temple was awarded the Air Force Cross, the nation's second-highest valor award for an airman, behind only the Medal of Honor.

The battle is only the second involving airmen since 9/11 to result in an Air Force Cross and multiple Silver Stars.

Interrupted plan

The team trained for days for the two-day mission, when another event almost knocked one of the combat controllers out of it. The group's outpost was hit by multiple rounds of rocket-propelled grenades during an attack on Sept. 21. Greiner took shrapnel to his leg, but was able to call in airstrikes while a medic worked on him, and while holding a map with holes blown through it.

He was taken to Kandahar Air Field for treatment, and then to Bagram, but kept asking for permission to return to his team. But "you have holes in your legs," doctors told him.

"I said, 'Show me what you want me to do, I'll do whatever you want,'" Greiner told Air Force Times. "So they said, 'Go run a mile and a half.' So I ran a mile and a half. I hobbled it, but I made it, and they said 'You're good.'"

Greiner returned at noon on Sept. 27, just hours before the team set off on the mission. His gear was still scattered after the attack. Without sleep, he gathered his equipment and finished the planning, and the group set off.

"I planned the op, so I didn't want to hand the op I planned off to someone else," Greiner said. "If you planned something, you don't want to give the plan to someone else and say, 'Here, execute.'"

Significant battle

The group infiltrated by helicopter to an enemy staging point, with the goal of disrupting insurgent operations in a Taliban stronghold. The battle came quickly and harder than the group had prepared for.

"We were not expecting what they brought to the fight," Temple said.

The group was split into three elements. Temple's team of nine — four soldiers and five Afghan commandos — moved to the east of the area, which included a small Taliban-held village. Element two — including Greiner and Goodman, 13 soldiers and 50 Afghan commandos — moved west. Another four soldiers and five commandos moved east of the first element.

More than 100 insurgents were ready for the fight and began with most of their fire focused on Temple's element. He directed close-air support from F-16s, AH-1s, AC-130s and an MQ-1 as the men faced overwhelming fire. When a soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Weathers, was hit by a sniper, Temple ran into enemy fire to return him to safety.

"Airman Temple helped keep him alive so his family was able to fly to Germany to see him alive one last time," Army Capt. Evan Lacenski, the team leader of 7th Group Special Forces and leader of the mission. said during the medals ceremony.

When Temple returned to his team, the enemy fighters surged within 40 meters. The group's interpreter captured the insurgents' order, "Take the Americans alive." The team fought the insurgents at close range, keeping them from "climbing through murder holes" in the team's compound, Lacenski said.

The team was running low on ammo when a resupply drop landed near the first element. Temple ran into open terrain to receive ammunition, running multiple times with two teammates through machine gun fire to retrieve ammo with "every insurgent trying to get 'em," Lacenski said.

"All of our positions were nearly out of ammo after nearly 45 hours of fighting," he said. "If we didn't get that resupply, we wouldn't have lasted."

The second element came under fire at about the same time, with a round hitting 6 inches from Goodman's head. He stayed on his rooftop to repel an insurgent assault within 40 meters of his position. Goodman called AH-64 attack helicopters to fire on the closest threats, while coordinating aerial strikes on mortar positions.

Goodman "maintained a steady flow of fires through a choreographed alternation of aerial strikes and mortar fire, subduing the enemy attack for hours," according to Goodman's citation. "At one point, Goodman drew the enemy out by instructing the loud, low-flying AC-130 to remain outside of audible range. When the enemy initiated a massive attack, Goodman controlled both aerial fires from the AC-130 and mortar fires from friendly ground forces until they retreated."

In the same element, Greiner was able to use an MQ-1's sensors to locate groups of insurgents moving through the village, and used A-10 and AH-64s to eliminate six before they could get in position. He destroyed a massive weapons cache and, during the night, used multiple aircraft to take out radio networks while braving enemy fire to locate enemy and friendly positions. While two observation posts almost became overrun, Greiner "focused all efforts on halting the enemy advance," according to his citation.

He called in four 500-pound bombs from two F-16s to destroy compounds with enemy machine gun positions and other strongpoints. When the insurgents called to capture Americans and advanced, Greiner directed three danger-close strikes with three Hellfire missiles and multiple strafing runs from AH-64s, and used an AC-130 to destroy insurgents advancing on motorcycles.

At the end of the battle, Greiner was responsible for eliminating 21 insurgents, and called in nine danger-close strikes. Goodman controlled 28 attack helicopters and 20 fixed wing aircraft for 26 engagements, six at danger close, 45 times with mortars, resulting in seven enemies killed. He also destroyed five buildings, 14 vehicles and nine fighting positions.

Temple controlled the aircraft for 26 engagements, including 75 danger-close strikes. His actions resulted in 10 enemies killed, another eight estimated killed and more than 80 friendly forces saved.

In all, there were 80 airstrikes, eliminating 38 confirmed insurgents, with another eight estimated killed. They destroyed 28 vehicles, 17 buildings and 32 fighting positions.

Exceptional heroism

The actions of the three airmen undoubtedly saved the lives of the Green Berets and the Afghan commandos, Lacenski said.

"The three CCTs are much of the reason I am standing here today, able to talk to you," he said. "They were presented with one of the most significant battles, in my opinion, of Operation Enduring Freedom, and they acted professionally, valorously and flawlessly. You absolutely cannot ask for a better group of airmen.

"Those guys in that position deserve praise for the American heroes that they are," he said. "One hundred percent."

The airmen are all members of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron. The unit claims four of the seven Air Force Crosses awarded during the Global War on Terror.

"We do know, for a fact, that Sergeant Greiner, Airman Temple and Airman Goodman displayed exceptional heroism and gallantry," said Navy Vice Adm. Sean Pybus, the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said the airmen represented the best of air commandos, the most highly decorated units in the Air Force "bar none."

"These decorations were earned years in advance," Heithold said. "Through exhaustive physical and mental training, through experience gained in combat deployment and exercises, from lessons passed on by the men who set the standard before them."

For Temple, the Air Force Cross represents his brothers in special operations and those who were with him in Afghanistan and "fought as hard as I did." He has returned to Pope to resume training, all while receiving "more notifications on Facebook than I can respond to" from people reaching out to congratulate and thank him for his work.

"I'm honored, moreso to receive this award for my friends and family, for my teammates," he said. "They gave all they had."