Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch, assigned to the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, is the first tactical air control party operator to receive the Silver Star in the past seven years, Air Force Special Operations Command said.
More than 250 family, friends and U.S. service members gathered for the ceremony, which was officiated by Maj. Gen. Vincent Becklund, deputy commander of AFSOC.
Kelsch was awarded the Silver Star for actions while deployed with a 75th Ranger Regiment battalion to Afghanistan over the summer of 2018.
The nightscape was lit by the moon as the joint special operations team approached the enemy compound. A small gun fight broke out, but was quickly ended by the U.S.-led team. They found their target inside the building, but intelligence picked up by aircraft overhead led the Americans to believe there was a second high-value target nearby.
They maneuvered to the second target compound via a creek bed that funneled the team into a path that was about a foot wide.
“It was pitch black because we were covered in trees and there were high walls on either side of us,” Kelsch said.
That’s when they made contact with the enemy once more.
“It was like a bomb went off,” Kelsch said. “It was so bright and looked like fireballs going off all around me.”
The joint team was caught in a near ambush by enemy forces using assault rifles, fragmentation grenades and belt-fed machine guns.
One American was hit in the chest and collapsed in front of Kelsch as he and his ground force commander sought cover behind a pile of rocks.
“The fire was so overwhelming, I couldn’t stick my head out,” Kelsch said. “Bullets were ricocheting … dirt was being kicked up. … I had to get eyes on target."
Disregarding his own safety, Kelsch exposed himself to enemy fire to call in danger-close air strikes from the AC-130 gunship overhead. Kelsch ordered 40 mm rounds down to suppress the enemy positions, several of which were only 35 meters away.
“If it weren’t for the true competency of that AC-130 crew, I wouldn’t be here today,” Kelsch said.
Kelsch and the ground force commander, Army Master Sgt. Phillip Paquette with 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, then moved out to recover their wounded teammate.
Paquette also received a Silver Star for his actions during the April 25 mission.
“Kelsch is the epitome of a professional,” Paquette, the Army Ranger ground force commander, said in an AFSOC release.
“One of [his] greatest attributes is his dedication to the mission and fellow Rangers. Sergeant Kelsch’s actions directly contributed to the recovery of wounded team members and the safe extraction of the objective area.”
During the maneuver, Kelsch took a round to the magazine on his armor plate carrier, which stopped it from penetrating further.
As the team rallied, Kelsch ordered the gunship to begin pounding the enemy nests with 105 mm rounds, still in the danger close range. The team secured an Afghan partner force casualty and fell back 100 meters to call for an extraction.
Kelsch ordered a flight of two F-16 Fighting Falcons to drop precision guided 500-pound bombs on the target compound piror to the exfil aircraft arriving.
“I did not think that a fight that big would ensue when we were going after that target,” said Kelsch. “It was just another day, another mission.”
Kelsch said he was receiving the Silver Star "on behalf of my team simply because we’re all in that situation.”
The Afghan special operation forces who fought alongside the team throughout the deployment were also pivotal.
“The Afghan partner forces are true patriots for their country,” Kelsch said. “They want their country to be rid of terrorists. They want peace. They’re professional, they’re lethal, they’re highly trained. It was an honor to work with them.”
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has 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.