On 10 March, 2009, Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner received the Air Force Cross in a Pentagon ceremony, becoming the third Airman to receive this award in the Global War on Terror – and the first living recipient. His story is told below in this Air Force News Service article from 24 December, 2008.
An Air Force Special Operations Command Air Commando saved lives in Afghanistan on 6 April, 2008, during a lengthy battle by calling in air strikes to protect his team. Staff Sgt. Zachary J. Rhyner, 22, a special tactics combat controller assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom as the primary joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) while attached to a US Army Special Forces (SF) team.
Then a Senior Airman, Sergeant Rhyner was part of a 100-plus-man combined assault force whose mission was to enter Shok Valley and capture a high-value target. Sergeant Rhyner is credited with saving his 10-man SF team from being overrun twice in a six-and-a-half-hour battle.
Air Force Capt. Stewart Parker, a special operations forces staff officer at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, was the command-and-control link to the JTACs on the ground as they went into Shok Valley. “This was the first time U.S. special operations forces had entered the territory,” said Captain Parker. “These were extraordinary conditions and the situation was dynamic.“
Shok Valley is located below 60-foot cliffs. The mission objective was at the top of the mountains surrounding the valley. “Initial infiltration began that day with snow on the ground, jagged rocks, a fast-moving river and a cliff,” said Sergeant Rhyner. “There was a 5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up. The ridgeline trail was out of control.”
The expectation was to encounter fire from about 70 insurgents. One Air Force JTAC-qualified combat controller was attached to each team to call in air strikes, if needed. “We were caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, a combat controller with the second team in the fight. “Within 10 minutes, we were ambushed with heavy fire from 50 meters. The teams were split by a river 100 to 200 meters apart, north to south.”
Sergeant Rhyner was in charge of coordinating the air assets.
“I have never seen a situation this bad,” said Captain Parker, who was monitoring the situation back at the base. “The intel said the enemy was 40 feet away from Zach and his team at one point. It was dangerous.”
Within the first 15 minutes of fire, Sergeant Rhyner was wounded, along with three team members. “I was pulling security when I got shot in the leg,” he said. “The rounds hit my left thigh and went through my leg and hit another guy in the foot.” He immediately felt pain and adrenalin.
“There was nowhere to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were trapped by the enemy,“ he said. “I was calling in air strikes and firing, while moving the wounded down [the cliff].”
Sergeant Gutierrez could see insurgent fire coming from the buildings on the hilltops above them and was trying to get across the river to link up with Sergeant Rhyner. “Zach and I were in constant radio contact,” he said. “I could hear the automatic weapons, sniper fire and shoulder-fired antitank rockets with multiple blasts. We tried to push to the north to collocate with Zach’s team, but every time we pushed up river, it put us in an open line of fire. My team ran across the freezing river. The water came off the mountains and we were 100 to 200 feet beneath the enemy, like fish in a barrel,” said Sergeant Gutierrez.
As the enemy surrounded them, Sergeant Rhyner, who was being treated for his injuries by Capt. Kyle Walton, the Special Forces team leader, directed multiple rocket and gun runs from AH-64 helicopters against enemy positions.
“Zach was coordinating tremendous amounts of fire on both villages simultaneously,” said Sergeant Gutierrez. “Zach was in charge of the air strikes, since he was closest to the fight and could see even what the F-15 pilots could not.” Forty-five minutes to an hour had gone by since the fight began. “We were pinned down and I could see the enemy all over the hills running around,” said Sergeant Gutierrez. There were no stable targets. I kept the Apaches and the Hellfire missiles pressed to the north.” Accurate sniper, machine gun and shoulder-fired antitank rocket fire poured down on the assault force in a complex ambush initiated simultaneously from all directions as the team ascended the near-vertical terrain.
Sergeant Rhyner called in more than 50 close air strikes and strafing runs. Three hours into the fight, Sergeant Gutierrez reached Sergeant Rhyner’s position. “Sergeant Gutierrez and I met on the cliff during the battle briefly. We shared a laugh, but it was a busy, bleak situation,” Sergeant Rhyner said.
Sergeant Rhyner had been calling in air strikes for three hours while he was injured, however he still felt responsible for the others who had been hurt. With disregard for his own life, he tried to get the injured to safety, still in the open line of fire. “I left injured personnel in a house and I had to get over there,” he said. “I was frustrated being wounded. I tried to get the bombs there fast and talk to the pilots who didn’t see what I saw on the ground.”
Five or six hours into the fight, as it was getting dark, intelligence informed the JTACs that enemy reinforcements were 10 kilometers away carrying enemy rockets and missiles.
“We continued to fight our way up the hill and the [helicopters] came,” said Sergeant Gutierrez. “Zach was talking to the helos and gave the coordinates to lay the bombs on the village, while I kept the A-10s and the Apaches out of the way.” Sergeant Rhyner called in a total of 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, 12 500-pound bombs and one 2,000-pound bomb, constantly engaging the enemy with his M-4 rifle to deter their advance.
“Zach acted fast and shut down the fighting,” said Sergeant Gutierrez. “The wounded were taken out on medevac.”
Back at command and control, Captain Parker heard that the helicopters were on the ground with the wounded but he could not move the helicopters due to terrain and weather conditions. “Radio transmissions would block the signal due to terrain and vertical cliffs,” he said. “Helicopters were vulnerable and there was pressure to do everything we could to get the teams out quickly.”
Fog started rolling into the valley. “The helicopter couldn’t fly [due to altitude] and the situation called for ‘aggressive patience,’” said Captain Parker. “More than 50 percent of the U.S. forces were wounded and it was pretty grave.”
Toward the end of the fighting, 40 insurgents were killed and 100 wounded. Sergeant Rhyner was directly credited with the entire team’s survival due to his skill and poise under intense fire. “Sergeant Rhyner is out of training less than a year and is in one of the most difficult situations” said Captain Parker. “It is an absolute testament to his character and the training these guys take. It tells me we are doing something right.”
“If it wasn’t for Zach, I wouldn’t be here,” said Sergeant Gutierrez. Sergeant Rhyner received the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs Grateful Nation Award on 8 December and is awaiting presentation of the Purple Heart for the wounds he suffered during the battle.