MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. – A colonel who was twice honored with Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor nearly five years ago for bravery in Afghanistan had both awards upgraded to Silver Stars Thursday.
Col. Christopher Barnett, a flight lead and mission commander who flew HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, was honored for the heroism he displayed during two separate missions in the spring of 2009.
The Air Force announced Thursday that Barnett's medals — as well as the medals of seven other airmen who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — were upgraded as part of a major review process. The Air Force convened two boards last May, one to review 12 medals that could have been upgraded to Air Force Crosses — the highest award the Air Force offers, second only to the Medal of Honor — and another to review 135 medals that could have been upgraded to Silver Stars. Outgoing Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James approved the nine medal upgrades on Tuesday.
The other medal upgrades are:
- Former Staff Sgt. Christopher Baradat, whose Silver Star will be upgraded to an Air Force Cross;
- Retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller, whose Silver Star will be upgraded to an Air Force Cross;
- Retired Lt. Col. Gregory Thornton, whose Distinguished Flying Cross will be upgraded to a Silver Star;
- Retired Lt. Col. Alan Botine, whose Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor will be upgraded to a Silver Star;
- Retired Master Sgt. Kristopher Parker, whose Bronze Star with Valor will be upgraded to a Silver Star;
- Retired Col. David Kennedy, whose Distinguished Flying Cross will be posthumously upgraded to a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor; and
- Lt. Col. James Holder, whose Distinguished Flying Cross will be upgraded to a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.
"We did not get it right from the beginning in certain instances," James said at Barnett’s ceremony at Maxwell. "That’s why we are rectifying that, right here and right now today, by upgrading nine awards to special airmen whose heroism deserves special mention."
During the flight to Maxwell, James told reporters she was honored to present the awards to Barnett as her last major official duty.
"There is nothing that we can do to ever really thank an airman like Christopher Barnett, but we can do our very best to hug them, appreciate them, tell them how special they are, and to provide these military recognitions," James said. "There is nowhere I would rather be on my last day in office than to be with an airman like Christopher Barnett and his family members, to be able to thank them and recognize all of them publicly, to be able to offer my thanks and the thanks of a grateful Air Force."
In an interview with reporters after the ceremony, Barnett called it a "great honor" to have James present the awards on her last day leading the Air Force. He said he started to get a little choked up as James read the details of the missions he flew in, and heard about the testimony from the soldiers whose lives he saved those days.
THROUGH HARROWING FIRE
The first mission Barnett was recognized for took place April 4, 2009, when Barnett — then a lieutenant colonel — and mission pilot then-Maj. Bryan Creel flew south from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, through enemy fire and a blinding sandstorm to rescue a soldier who had suffered a head wound and get him to a trauma hospital in Kandahar. Soon after dropping the wounded soldier off, they found out a convoy of special operations troops was pinned down by insurgents near Kajaki, Afghanistan.
When Barnett’s helicopter and a second Pave Hawk arrived, the enemy broke off and retreated, according to the citation accompanying the first Silver Star. Barnett conducted "numerous show of force events" to hold off the enemy, despite the risk of surface-to-air fire.
A second team was also under attack from three locations, pinned down by heavy machine gun fire, and was at risk of being overrun when Barnett arrived.
"With fixed wing ordnance detonating on all sides and complete disregard for his own safety, he closed his aircraft to within 20 meters of the enemy, exposing themselves to harrowing fire to pinpoint the besieged team," the citation read. "Through a hail of intense enemy machine gun fire, Colonel Barnett expertly executed a fixed forward gunnery attack, knocking out enemy machine gun positions."
Barnett and his flight kept attacking until the insurgents were destroyed, the citation said, and although his fuel was running low, he kept watch over the team. Barnett then fought through barrages of rocket-propelled grenade fire as he led another series of attacks that destroyed another insurgent position and forced them to withdraw. Barnett saved the lives of 40 Green Berets and one Afghan National Army soldier.
A little more than a month later, Barnett and Creel again found themselves under heavy fire. On May 19 and 20, 2009, Barnett — again the mission commander and flight lead of two Pave Hawks — flew into a "Taliban stronghold" through heavy machine gun, RPGs and small-arms fire to rescue a soldier who had been severely wounded during a four-day battle near Marjah, Afghanistan, the second citation said.
About 120 U.S. military service members and civilians had gone in to conduct what Barnett described as "the biggest drug bust in Afghanistan’s history," seizing drugs with a street value of at least $100 million from a market. The Taliban was "pretty upset," he said, and that morning began attacking every hour and a half.
Barnett and his flight fought their way back to their base, and then returned to evacuate another wounded service member, the citation said. The situation was growing increasingly serious — Taliban forces were in the area, and they had no close-air support.
Barnett readied his helicopter to attack, but the other helicopter "suffered a catastrophic emergency," the citation said. Barnett called off the attack and guided his wingman to safety.
"Exhibiting superb airmanship, Colonel Barnett shot a perfect zero visibility approach despite overwhelming ground fire," the citation said.
But he wasn’t done yet — and neither was the Taliban. Barnett and his flight returned for a third time, as the attacks intensified. The Taliban had surrounded the area, and were directing "intense and accurate" RPG, mortar and heavy machine gun fire at the helicopters.
"They were choice targets for enemy forces," the citation read. "Colonel Barnett executed multiple dry attack runs, covering his wingman’s landing, when a mortar salvo detonated directly beneath his aircraft, nearly knocking it out of the air. Despite the enemy fire from all directions, he remained in position to cover his wingman."
That mortar actually knocked Barnett’s helicopter sideways, James said.
"It was a miracle that he remained aloft, that he kept on flying, that he lived through all of these engagements, that he was able to save as many on the ground as he did," James said.
When it was all over, Barnett was overcome with relief that they had saved the troops and he and his airmen wouldn’t have to go back out. Barnett said that — even though he didn’t smoke — he felt like he needed a cigarette.
"The fire was intense from the get-go," Barnett said. "People were saying they’ve never seen anything like it. There was black smoke, fire from everywhere, we were taking fire from every side. It was like a scene from ‘Apocalypse Now.’ "
Barnett said that although his helicopter took some damage, losing one engine, it was a miracle it wasn’t worse – especially with how hard he was pushing his bird to save his comrades’ lives over so many missions.
"For me, it was personal," Barnett said. "It’s our job, but we also knew the guys – the special forces, the Green Berets that were down there. The third guy we picked up at Marjah was an Air Force individual that was working with them, a combat controller. It was important to make sure that they got out of there. And nobody else was gonna go, so we did."
Creel also received Distinguished Flying Crosses with Valor in 2012 for those same missions, but his awards were not selected for upgrades.
Barnett said Creel — who is still in the Air Force and is now a lieutenant colonel — and the other airmen who flew and fought those days deserve the same recognition he has now received, including Silver Stars. Barnett described Creel as "one of the top three pilots that I know."
"It definitely wasn’t just me," Barnett said. "It was such a group effort. The tightness that we had — it was incredible."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.