History made with CSAF presentation of service’s top valor medal

A seven-foot bronze statue stood prominently over a sea of multi-colored berets, flanked by the 21st Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Air Force’s newest Air Force Cross recipients.

Two Airmen, whose heroics were separated by 11 years and 100 miles in the same war zone, solidified a Special Tactics legacy that has seen a great deal of action since 9/11.

“You represent the finest traits America can ask of its warriors, as you fight alongside joint and coalition teammates in crises of the highest consequence,” Gen. David L. Goldfein, 21st Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said. “When lives are on the line, you move carefully and deliberately into harm’s way with protection of others in mind.”

For the first time in history, two Air Force Crosses were simultaneously presented to Airmen at the Special Tactics memorial as a result of a service-wide review of medals, here, April 20.

Goldfein presided over the historic event, presenting Christopher Baradat, a combat controller since separated, and Master Sgt. (Ret.) Keary Miller, a pararescueman, the service’s highest valor award.

The Air Force Cross is presented for extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations against an enemy of the United States. These are the eighth and ninth Air Force Crosses to be awarded since 9/11-- all have been awarded to Special Tactics Airmen since the end of the Vietnam War.

 “This is the essence of Special Tactics,” Goldfein said. “You do what others cannot, or will not do, and you do it because it must be done, and because there is no one better.”

Both medal upgrades were due to a DOD-directed review of medals from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure service members are appropriately recognized for their actions.

“We are a highly trained and capable ground combat force leading global access, precision strike, personnel recovery, battlefield surgery and command and control missions; when tandemed with air and space power, we can make the impossible, possible--- the decisive edge in battle,” said Col. Michael Martin about the Special Tactics force, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing. “Keary Miller and Chris Baradat are prime examples of our professional and battle hardened ground combat force.”

During a 17-hour battle on an Afghan mountaintop, then-Tech. Sgt. Miller, a Special Tactics pararescueman --against overwhelming odds and a barrage of heavy fire from Al Qaeda militants-- dashed through deep snow into the line of fire multiple times to assess and care for critically-wounded U.S. service members, March 4, 2002.

“The legacy of Keary Miller is not one of momentary heroism, but of deliberate professional assessment, the application of great skill, and the willingness to risk his life to save another,” said Lt. Col. Shane Mclane, commander of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, an Air National Guard unit of Special Tactics Airmen in Louisville, Ky.  “Keary dashed into the line of fire repeatedly --not out of disregard for the risks he face-- but because of his regard for his fellow operator.  Each time he did so, he made a deliberate decision to risk his own life to save another.  He lived by the Pararescue Motto ‘That Others May Live.’”

At the time, Miller was assigned to the 123rd STS. He was the combat search and rescue lead to recover two fellow special operations members from the top of Takur Ghar. During this mission, Miller is credited with saving the lives of ten U.S. service members, and the recovery of seven who were killed in action.

“We always had a saying, ‘Train as you fight,’ and that’s what we did,” said Miller. “We were used to training to the point of failure so we wouldn’t fail for real. That’s the community we work in; we learn to adapt to stressful and unrealistic environments as a team.”

Eleven years later and more than 100 miles north of Miller’s mission, then-Staff Sgt. Baradat precisely directed thirteen 500-pound bombs and more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition during three hours of intense fighting against the Taliban in a steep valley, contributing to the safety of 150 troops and destruction of 50 enemy and 13 separate enemy fighting positions, in Afghanistan, April 6, 2013.

To many, Baradat helped turn the tide of the battle, bringing close air support to deter an overwhelming enemy force. Teammates and aircrew recalled him stepping into the line of fire without regard for his own safety to protect the ground force.

“I don’t feel like I was doing anything above or beyond or heroic that day; I was doing my job that I was supposed to do, with my team,” said Baradat. “I had an amazing [U.S. Army] Special Forces team that I was with that day … I was just a piece of the puzzle, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone that day.”

At the time, Baradat was on his third deployment to Afghanistan and was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, the most highly-decorated unit in modern Air Force history.

For both medal recipients, the upgrade was both unexpected and humbling – but the focus will always remain on their time serving their country.

“I don’t feel a responsibility as a medal recipient; it’s the oath we take and the enlistment to serve our country,” said Miller. “In the military, you take pride into what you are signing up for…the Air Force has core values you believe in, and that’s your day-to-day lifestyle.”

Fort Bragg airman to receive Silver Star for valor during battle to retake Kunduz, Afghanistan

An Air Force Combat Controller who risked his life during a battle to retake the northern Afghanistan city of Kunduz in 2015 will receive the Silver Star in a ceremony on Fort Bragg next week.

Tech. Sgt. Brian C. Claughsey, part of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, will be honored with the medal, the third-highest award for valor offered by the U.S. military, in a ceremony slated for Friday, 04/07/2017.

According to officials, he provided important support during operations to liberate Kunduz from Taliban control, protecting U.S. and Afghan forces while directing 17 close air support strikes from AC-130U and F-16 aircraft.

The Silver Star will be the latest in a lengthy history of valor from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unit, based at Fort Bragg’s Pope Field, is the most decorated in modern Air Force history, with four of the nine Air Force Crosses awarded since 2001 and 11 Silver Stars earned by the squadron’s airmen.

The medals have come not because the unit seeks them, but because its members often serve their country in the most dangerous of positions, officials said.

“Airmen like Brian honor the Air Force’s incredible legacy of valor,” said Lt. Col. Stewart Parker, commander of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron. “Like those who’ve gone before him, he serves our nation with no expectation of recognition.”

According to the squadron’s higher command, the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Claughsey recently completed Special Tactics Officer assessment and has been selected to become an officer. He will soon attend Officer Training School before commissioning as a second lieutenant.

Col. Michael E. Martin, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, praised the airman after officials confirmed the award.

“Brian is an exemplary airman and leader — he is a prime example of the professionalism, courage, and tactical know-how of the Special Tactics operator force,” he said. “In a violent, complex operating environment, Brian decisively integrated air power with ground operations to eliminate the enemy, and save lives.”

An official description of Claughsey’s actions said he was part of a force that deployed to Kunduz on Sept. 28, 2015, after the city had fallen to an estimated 500 Taliban insurgents.

He volunteered to ride in the lead convoy vehicle to assume close air support duties during the movement into Kunduz and immediately took control of an AC-130U when the troops were ambushed upon entering the city.

Claughsey directed precision fires on an enemy strong point to protect the convoy. During a second ambush, he coordinated friendly force locations with an overhead AC-130U while directing “danger close” strikes.

When a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device forced the convoy to stop in the middle of a four-way intersection, Claughsey suppressed the machine gun fire of six insurgents with his rifle while still coordinating with the AC-130U. He directed the crew on the plane to destroy the enemy fighters and helped shield the convoy from follow-on attacks as it made its way to the compound of the Kunduz provincial chief of police.

There, the American special operators and Afghan forces came under attack by Taliban mortar fire. According to the narrative of the battle, Claughsey maneuvered as close to the mortars’ origin as possible to pinpoint the location to an overhead F-16. He then controlled numerous strafing runs on the mortar position to eliminate the threat.

After helping to destroy the enemy mortar position, Claughsey moved to suppress enemy fire to allow another airman to direct another F-16 strike on the other side of the compound. He then stood exposed to enemy fire to hold a laser marker in position on an enemy building, directing two “danger close” strikes on the building from the F-16.

Those strikes killed an unspecified number of enemy attackers, effectively ending the attack on the Kunduz police compound.

Claughsey, from Connecticut, enlisted in May 2008 and became a Combat Controller in February 2014, after two years of rigorous training, according to officials. He has deployed twice, once to Afghanistan and once to Kuwait as part of a global access special tactics team to survey and establish airfield operations.

He has previously been awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster and Air Force Combat Action Medal.

Four-day firefight: Combat controller earns Silver Star for Afghanistan valor
In September 2015, then-Staff Sgt. Brian Claughsey was deployed with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron in Afghanistan when his team got a call: The city of Kunduz was under attack by the Taliban.

Claughsey, a combat controller, linked up with Army Special Forces soldiers with the goal of liberating the city and recapturing its airfield.

In an ongoing firefight over the next four days, he and the other members of the team fought their way through back-to-back ambushes. Claughsey engaged the enemy while calling in close-air support and helped keep more than 100 people safe.

For his actions, Claughsey, now a technical sergeant, received the Silver Star during a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Friday.

Liberating Kunduz

As Claughsey and his team were driving to the Kunduz airfield Sept. 29, 2015, they saw civilians fleeing the city.

“[That] is usually a pretty telltale sign that the Taliban has taken over,” Claughsey told reporters during a phone interview Friday before the ceremony.

After a night of fighting, the U.S. service members re-secured the airfield, but when they returned to the forward operating base, they were told the entire city had fallen to the Taliban.

“We were going to go back in that night and go all the way into the city and liberate Kunduz so we could give [the residents] their city back,” he said.

Claughsey rode in the fourth truck of a 50-vehicle convoy, consisting of pickup trucks from the Afghan National Army and vehicles from the Special Forces team.

“As we started going into the city, we got past the airfield and as soon as we [did], we started taking fire from a building,” he said.

Claughsey called in the AC-130U flying overhead and directed fire toward the Taliban position, according to his Silver Star narrative.

“We got back into the convoy, and from there on out, [we took fire] about every 100 to 200 meters,” he said. “The C-130 did a phenomenal job of putting rounds down and keeping us safe and allowing us to continue on.”

After a third ambush from a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device that was detonated, the convoy had to stop at a four-way intersection where six insurgents opened fire with machine guns.

As Claughsey’s truck attempted to suppress the enemy, two Special Forces soldiers drove an all-terrain vehicle between the truck and the enemy, engaging them with a machine gun.

“Those two guys were really the reason my vehicle survived any of that ambush,” he said, adding that he also directed C-130 fire on the insurgents.

With them out of the way, the team cleared one of the buildings off the road — from which they operated for the next four days.

“Once we got into that compound, it was fairly sustained fighting for four days,” he said. “There was no downtime … you typically see lulls in the fight, like at night. That certainly didn’t happen.” 

At one point, one of the special operators called Claughsey on the radio to ask for support at their position.

“They were taking very effective fire from mortars and small arms,” he said. “I coordinated with the [overhead] F-16 and did some strafing.”

The repeated attack from the low-flying F-16 was effective, but a few hours later, the Taliban made a final push to try to take over the compound.

The troops were attacked from three sides, which pinned Claughsey down on a rooftop while another combat controller called in air support on another side of the compound.

While stuck on the roof, Claughsey and a Special Forces soldier engaged the enemy with M4 assault rifles and grenade launchers.

The fighting lasted about an hour, with Claughsey using his weapon’s laser to mark the enemy location for F-16 strikes.

After the close-range strikes, the fighting ended and Claughsey was able to get off the roof. 

“Over the course of the intense firefight to liberate Kunduz from Taliban control, Staff Sergeant Claughsey expertly coordinated 17 separate close-air support engagements, resulting in many enemy killed in action and no civilian or friendly casualties — ensuring the safety of 36 U.S. Army Special Forces personnel and the 110 Afghan partner force personnel,” according to the narrative. 

Humble hero

Claughsey, who enlisted in 2008, said his intense, two-year training helped prepare him for a situation like this.

“Your training kicks in and it takes over,” he said. “It wasn’t the first time I was stressed out or hadn’t slept in four days straight.”

The combat controller community also shares stories with each other to make sure younger guys are ready to get out there and adapt to whatever they might be exposed to, Claughsey said.

Lt. Col. Stewart Parker, the 21st Special Tactics Squadron commander, said he has enjoyed his time working with Claughsey.

“You’d never know if you met him on the street the kind of hero he is because he just doesn’t wear it on his sleeve,” Parker said.

Claughsey said receiving the Silver Star is “really humbling” and shows him that the other combat controllers and Special Forces team members had confidence in him.

“It’s humbling to be a part of such a large team and such a joint force that did a really incredible job of getting the city back to the Afghan people, who deserved to have their city,” he said.

Watching the state of the city change from when they arrived to when the civilians were able to return was a great feeling, he said.

“When we came in, it was nothing but Taliban,” Claughsey said. “And these people were back in their homes and waving on our way out.”

Airman receives Silver Star for heroics in Afghan battle
A force of 130 American and Afghan troops were under siege, surrounded in a government compound deep in the heart of a city controlled by more than 2,000 Taliban fighters.

At times pinned down on the roof of the compound and constantly facing threats from enemy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian C. Claughsey calmly directed the air support that kept the U.S. and Afghan troops alive and helped loosen the Taliban’s grasp on the city, a provincial capital in the country’s north.

During the four-day battle in September and October 2015, Claughsey’s support was critical, the leader of an Army Special Forces team wrote when recommending the airman for one of the nation’s highest awards for valor in combat.

Without him, the commander wrote, the U.S. and Afghan forces would have likely taken casualties and would not have been successful in their mission to establish a foothold in the besieged city.

With no break in the fighting, Claughsey controlled more than 17 close air support missions, often while exposing himself to enemy fire to better pinpoint targets for overhead AC-130U gunships and an F-16, officials said. He repeatedly put his well-being at risk to ensure the safety of those he fought alongside.

For those efforts, Claughsey, part of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, received the Silver Star in a ceremony at Fort Bragg’s Pope Theater on Friday.

Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commanding general of Air Force Special Operations Command, pinned the medal – the U.S. military’s third highest award for valor – on the airman’s chest.

The general said Claughsey’s efforts killed at least 47 enemy fighters with no civilian casualties. He also helped ensure that no allied forces were wounded during the lengthy fight.

“I hope I’m doing justice painting the picture of Brian’s contribution,” Webb said while explaining how Claughsey and the other troops fought their way into the city two days after the Taliban launched an all-out assault that drove Afghan soldiers and police out of the area.

Webb said the attack on Kunduz came as a surprise to intelligence analysts, who predicted that the Taliban would be focused on the southern part of Afghanistan, near their traditional strongholds.

The U.S. military was less than a year into the Resolute Support Mission, he said, meaning the focus of operations was more on advising and assisting Afghan forces and less about the U.S. military being in the lead.

The fall of Kunduz, Webb said, was a huge concern.

“The Taliban overran the city. It was their first major victory in 14 years,” he said.

“If Kunduz falls, what’s to stop Kandahar and some of the major cities, even Kabul, from coming under attack?” Webb added.

With civilians fleeing the Taliban-controlled city, Claughsey’s Special Tactics team – based at Bagram Airfield – was called to action. Embedding within a group of soldiers from the Fort Bragg-based 3rd Special Forces Group, the U.S. force and its Afghan counterparts first pushed their way to Kunduz a day after the Taliban began its assault and a day before the events described in Claughsey’s Silver Star citation.

That night, Sept. 29, 2015, Claughsey was part of the team that recaptured an airfield just outside Kunduz that would be key to the eventual liberation of the city.

The next day, as the Taliban tightened its control of Kunduz, Claughsey and his team were charged with returning to the city, which they were told had completely fallen.

“Their charge was to dig deep in to the city, clear some key government buildings, establish control and set conditions for taking back the city of Kunduz,” Webb said.

That was no easy task, according to officials.

Claughsey said the allied force arrived at the city’s outskirts in a 50-vehicle convoy, with many of the vehicles borrowed from the Afghan army.

The airman was in one of the first vehicles, a lightly armored Ford Ranger pickup.

Claughsey sat in the bed of the truck, keeping a watchful eye as the troops entered the city.

Within Kunduz, the Taliban was preparing to fend off the invading force. They freed more than 700 prisoners, many of whom stayed to fight the joint American-Afghan force.

The expected ambush came as the force passed the airfield, Claughsey said. With Taliban fighters opening fire from a nearby building.

He directed an overhead AC-130U “Spooky” gunship to attack the enemy location, which stopped the attack, providing a brief respite before what would become 96 hours of sustained combat.

As the troops moved into the city, they came under attack every 100 to 200 meters, Claughsey said.

At one point, the convoy was ambushed in an attack that started with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device that briefly trapped Claughsey’s vehicle in the center of a four-way intersection while two groups of Taliban fighters opened fire with machine guns.

Two more heavily armored Special Forces vehicles drove to the rescue of Claughsey and the others in his truck, blocking them from the guns and allowing them to get out of the kill zone.

During the attacks, Claughsey turned his weapon on the enemy while continuing to control air support, sending aircraft on strafing runs to target enemy fighters looking to out maneuver the convoy.

The city was devoid of civilian life, he said. And their entire route was covered by Taliban fighters.

Over the four days of fighting, Claughsey took turns controlling the steady presence of overhead aircraft with another combat controller and an Army Special Forces soldier.

“There really was no downtime,” he said.

A force of 130 American and Afghan troops were under siege, surrounded in a government compound deep in the heart of a city controlled by more than 2,000 Taliban fighters.

At times pinned down on the roof of the compound and constantly facing threats from enemy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian C. Claughsey calmly directed the air support that kept the U.S. and Afghan troops alive and helped loosen the Taliban’s grasp on the city, a provincial capital in the country’s north.

During the four-day battle in September and October 2015, Claughsey’s support was critical, the leader of an Army Special Forces team wrote when recommending the airman for one of the nation’s highest awards for valor in combat.
Claughsey said that after the fighting ended, the once desolate city returned to life. As the troops were relieved, he said they could hear people returning to their homes and children playing.

“We didn’t see or hear a single civilian until we were about to exfil,” Claughsey said. “It was a pretty incredible feeling… It meant we were successful.”

The fighting was the heaviest of Claughsey’s Air Force career, which included one other deployment.

But while the airman was exhausted, he never thought he was in over his head.

“The training kicks in and it takes over,” Claughsey said, describing the grueling two-year pipeline to become a Special Tactics airman and combat controller. “It wasn’t the first time I hadn’t slept or had been stressed for four days straight.”

“It was the first firefight of that magnitude that I had seen, but I felt like I had been there before,” he added.

Lt. Col. Stewart Parker, commander of the Fort Bragg-based 21st Special Tactics Squadron, said Claughsey’s actions during the Battle of Kunduz were another chapter in the legacy of the unit, the most decorated in modern Air Force history.

The squadron’s airmen have earned four Air Force Crosses and 11 Silver Stars since 2001, according to officials.

But Parker said none of the unit’s airmen have sought out those honors.

“The bottom line is the teams here are not seeking any of this recognition,” the squadron commander said. “It’s really about the job for them.”

Special Tactics is a force of highly trained airmen, Parker said, who provide an important set of specialized skills.

And the valor the unit has been honored for over the years is a natural part of the job.

“These guys are incredibly humble,” Stewart said. “They’re all about the mission… This is just the recognition that comes with doing a great job.”

Stewart said Claughsey was an incredibly professional, competent and humble airman. But he’s “absolutely a hero,” too, despite an easygoing, mild-mannered demeanor.

“You would never know if you met him on the street the kind of hero he is because he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve,” Stewart said.

Claughsey said he was humbled to receive the medal. He repeatedly praised the efforts of the Special Forces team and Afghans he fought alongside, as well as the crews flying overhead.

“They did a phenomenal job,” he said.

The Silver Star was extra special, Claughsey said, because he was recommended for it by his Army counterparts.

“This was absolutely a joint fight,” he said. “It couldn’t have been done without them. They were absolutely incredible.”

With the medal in hand, Claughsey is now ready to embark on a new chapter in his career, officials said.

According to the squadron’s higher command, the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Claughsey recently completed Special Tactics Officer assessment and has been selected to become an officer. He will soon attend Officer Training School before commissioning as a second lieutenant.

Becoming an officer will allow Claughsey to “widen his umbrella” and take care of a larger group of airmen, he said. “I’m absolutely looking forward to it.”