The Air Force Cross and 10 other medals for valor were awarded at a ceremony Tuesday to airmen who fought in a deadly battle Nov. 2, 2016, in Kunduz province, Afghanistan.
“Kunduz province is an ancient land. It is home to legendary stories,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during the ceremony. “But it is not peaceful there. It is highly contested. It is at a strategic crossroads in northern Afghanistan and a prime target for the Taliban. ... That night, the joint team and our airmen responded with extraordinary courage, over and over again.”
Staff Sgt. Richard Hunter, a combat controller assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the Air Force Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor — for that mission to the village of Boz Kandahari. There, his team‘s objective was to capture or kill a high-value Taliban leader, Wilson said.
Five crew members of the AC-130U gunship that supported Hunter’s ground team received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and another four received Air Medals with valor.
Leading up to that fateful mission, the gunship crew had been flying six or more nights in a row to provide fire support for ground forces, said Maj. Alexander Hill, the pilot and aircraft commander.
“You end up shooting a lot out there in Afghanistan, right now in particular,” Hill said. “So that night started off not being really out of the ordinary.”
When the 55-man ground team, composed of U.S. Special Operations forces and Afghan commandos, landed in a field of two-foot deep mud, however, things began to feel off for both the gunship crew and the ground team.
“The fields we were going to land in were flooded ... really kind of weird, like they irrigated the fields or knew we were coming,” Hunter said.
Despite the flooding, the team continued their mission. They were dropped off by two CH-47 Chinook helicopters at 11 p.m. and began trudging through the muck to their objective, Hunter said.
The team was harassed with gunfire while clearing through the village. And because of the flooding, the troops were short on time, forcing them to skip some areas they normally would have cleared, Hill said.
Eventually, they made their way to the final compound. There, the team laid explosives to blow open a 12-foot tall, quarter-inch thick steel gate, and found the Taliban leader they were searching for inside, Hunter said.
“That’s when things just kind of got weird. We found ourselves in pretty much a three-way ambush,” Hunter said. “There was initiation by a hand grenade that landed pretty close to us, and then followed by machine-gun fire from pretty much all directions except for directly behind us. It just got pretty chaotic, pretty quick.”
The ground team was contained inside an alleyway, with only one opening they could reliably move towards, Hill said. As they withdrew down the alleyway, gunmen fired on them from two-story buildings overlooking their hasty retreat, he said.
“Within the first two minutes of the ambush, we had approximately 20 casualties,” Hunter said. “Throughout the rest of the night, we fought our way through that until we left.”
The gunship crew began raining down 105 mm Howitzer, point-detonated rounds on the elevated buildings from which the insurgents were firing, Hill said. The shots were within 12 meters of the ground team as they bounded down the alleyway, qualifying as “danger-close,” he added.
Those danger-close strikes required approval from the ground-force commander because the missile blasts were so close they ran the risk of harming friendly forces as well, Hill said.
“I’m pretty sure we concussed him [Hunter] a few times,” Hill said. “There was an enemy element that was advancing very close to them ... and we pretty much told Sgt. Hunter to put his head down, and we fired one round closer than we’re pretty sure anyone has ever fired an air-burst round. ... It took that for them to finally quiet down to their east.”
The gunship was actively firing all of its weapons for 107 straight minutes, Hill said. At the same time, Apache helicopters were coordinating their own strikes, he added.
“One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life is the fact there’s so much chaos happening on the ground, and everybody above us had our backs completely,” Hunter said. “As scared as we were and as bad as the situation was, at no point did I fear for my life ... because, overhead, we got these guys in this gunship just raining all sorts of hate and taking care of us completely.”
The team didn’t manage to evacuate until 7:45 a.m, Hunter said. By then, two U.S. soldiers and three Afghan commandos had been killed, and another four U.S. soldiers and 11 Afghans were wounded. Nearly 30 Taliban fighters were killed, including three of their commanders, Secretary Wilson said during the ceremony.
In January, a military investigation determined that 33 civilians were killed during the battle. However, the investigation concluded that U.S. forces acted within the appropriate means of self defense, and were cleared of wrong-doing.