Staff Sgt. Richard Hunter, a combat controller with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, will receive the Air Force Cross for his actions during a 2016 battle in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command said Tuesday.
During the battle, Hunter called in 31 danger-close air strikes in support of his 12-man Army Special Forces team, said Lt. Gen. Brad Webb. Some of those air strikes were as close as 13 meters from friendly forces, Webb added.
The Air Force Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor.
Hunter will be the 11th AFSOC recipient of the Air Force Cross since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Webb said.
On Nov. 2, 2016, “the team was on a mission to uncover a Taliban safe haven, ended up in an ambush, and Sgt. Hunter, as the JTAC and combat controller, called in a number of strikes,” Webb said. “It was an eight-hour firefight. They took American casualties. In fact, some of his Army brothers were killed in the exchange.“
The team had been ambushed by insurgents in elevated positions along the northern village of Boz Kandahari. Hunter controlled AC-130 Gunships and AH-64 Apaches as the team moved through the village and was ultimately evacuated by helicopter under fire.
Over the course of the engagement, Hunter was “firing his own weapon, protecting others, providing first aid to others, and calling in air strikes,” Webb said. “It was an extremely heroic mission. I‘m very, very proud of him.”
In an August interview with Air Force Times, Hunter elaborated on the situation his team faced in Kunduz Province.
“Picture this: A group of about 50 people, with [about] 50 percent of them attritted to injuries, and half of them not able to walk,” Hunter said. “So what are the other half doing? Dragging, carrying bodies. That’s what we were doing with them as we were bounding up this alleyway.”
Two U.S. soldiers and three Afghan partner forces were killed during the engagement, according to the official account. An additional four U.S. soldiers and 11 Afghans were wounded. After the battle ended, Hunter had controlled airstrikes that killed 27 enemy fighters.
In January 2017, a military investigation determined that 33 Afghan civilians were also killed during the engagement. The investigation concluded that U.S. forces acted in self-defense, however, and were cleared of wrongdoing.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.