Their mission was to return power to the people of Kabul. But what started as a peaceful venture ended in a 14-hour firefight, with one Airman using air power to turn the tide of the battle.
Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, ventured out into enemy fire multiple times, controlled 22 aircraft delivering 3,000 pounds of munitions, rescued four joint-partner teammates from sniper fire…and now, he’s receiving the Silver Star Medal.
During a ceremony Nov. 16 here, the vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, presented the nation’s third highest medal for gallantry against an armed enemy of the U.S. in combat to Thiem. Thiem’s actions occurred when he was deployed with a U.S. Army Special Forces team in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
As a combat controller, Thiem is part of a highly trained special operations force who integrate air power into the special operations battlespace.
“Our Special Tactics heritage is long and distinguished,” said Haase. “Gallantry is the epitome of our Special Tactics Airmen every day, along with courage, dedication, and selflessness.”
On Feb. 22 this year, Thiem and his SOF element, consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces and Afghan partnered forces, made their way to a town in Bagram Province, which was in chaos and on the verge of collapse to well-equipped fighters. Their mission –to return electricity to the locals– would bolster the local governance in the face of an overwhelming threat of oppression and violence.
“We pushed in through the mountains….it was cold and wet, and we walked for four or five hours until we hit our initial point of resistance,” said Thiem. “The Taliban had intentionally flooded the fields, forcing us to take one specific route…so they knew we were coming and where we were coming from.”
At the first compound, the element’s progress was slowed down by accurate and heavy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The U.S.-Afghan force intercepted communications indicating the enemy was in a fortified position and using nigh-vision devices to target them.
Thiem’s role began in earnest when two friendly elements were pinned down by withering machine-gun fire, impacting within inches of their position. This was the first of many times Thiem disregarded his own safety to step into enemy fire and relay coordinates to an F-16 Fighting Falcon, which dropped two 500-pound bombs within 35 and 80 meters of friendly positions in order to save his beleaguered teammates.
“Without exposing yourself [to enemy fire], there’s really no way to see who is where or what is going on,” said Thiem. “It’s mass chaos and confusion on the battlefield, and the last thing you want is fratricide.”
After eliminating those threats, friendly forces could continue on the offensive until they couldn’t advance any further. When preparing to leave, insurgents initiated another complex ambush from fortified positions– this time concentrating heavy fire toward the main friendly formation. Shrapnel and bullets tore through the force, resulting in eight critically wounded teammates.
“It’s hard to say the fear goes away because it’s definitely nerve-wracking,” said Thiem. “Having the weight of the situation on your shoulders, disregard for yourself takes over and you do what you have to do to make sure the rest of the team gets out of there.”
In the midst of the chaotic ambush, Thiem led a recovery team into a hail of heavy enemy fire several times to rescue pinned-down Afghan commandos who were separated from the main force. Along with a small group, he made his way through a hail of gunfire in open terrain for 100 meters to locate and account for a separated friendly element before calling in additional airstrikes.
Thiem then controlled six F-16 shows of force, providing critical time and space for friendly forces to maneuver out of the immediate kill zone and scramble to relative safety. After accounting for all friendly forces, Thiem directed another danger-close air strike within 80 meters, which allowed his teammates to regroup.
As the SOF unit worked to gain accountability, four Afghan Commando partners were identified as missing. While still receiving sniper fire, Thiem orchestrated air strikes while using ISR aircraft to locate the missing commandos.
Once he located the wounded commandos, Thiem coordinated an U.S. Army AH-64 Apache escort and led a small recovery team 150 meters toward a prepared machine-gun position to recover the wounded commandos. While on the move, Thiem expertly targeted insurgents and controlled two additional 30mm gun runs to cover the team’s movement.
The team was still under fire when Thiem helped carry the wounded teammates on litters 200 meters to the main force, all the while continuing to control circling ISR aircraft and Apache gunships.
“There’s definitely a huge trust in the aircraft overhead, not just the Apaches but all the strike aircraft,” said Thiem. “It’s just a sense that they know exactly what they’re doing up there, and they know exactly what we’re doing…and they’re going to save us. The Apaches were taking rounds when we were carrying the litter…those guys are just as heroic as we were on the ground.”
One commando was still unaccounted for so the recovery team ran back out into enemy fire, but were pinned down. Without hesitation, Thiem controlled two more 30mm gun runs and eight rockets to destroy the fortified sniper position, allowing his team to reach the fourth missing Afghan Commando and return to the rally point.
Once the fighting started to die down, Thiem focused his efforts on coordinating medical evacuation lifts for injured forces while continuing to de-conflict close air support fires on several other insurgent positions. In the end, Thiem’s actions played a role in suppressing a well-prepared force, supporting local Afghan governance, and returning electricity to the Afghan people
“Our Special Tactics Airmen performed when it mattered the most, on the battlefield,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Magruder, commander of the 22nd STS. “Drawing on their training, they acted without regard for their own safety in order to protect their joint and coalition brothers in arms.”
Three of Thiem’s U.S. Army Special Forces teammates were awarded Silver Star Medals for their valorous actions during the same battle.
“What means the most is when my teammates on the Army side reach out and congratulate me because they were there with me,” said Thiem. “I don’t even have words to explain what I feel when some of them tell me that I saved their lives…it’s humbling.”
In addition to the Silver Star Medal presentation, Haase also presented a Bronze Star with Valor and four AF Combat Action Medals to 22 STS Airmen.
One Airman, while deployed with a U.S. Army SOF team May 7, 2016, eliminated an insider attack in Afghanistan. An enemy in an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the base and began firing on partner-force soldiers. The combat controller covered one of the wounded soldiers with his own body while providing aid, and spotting the attacker, drew his weapon and killed the gunman. He then began to render aid to both wounded and coordinated a medical evacuation — saving the lives of two SOF teammates and five Romanian soldiers.
Additionally, four other Airmen assigned to the 22nd STS were awarded Combat Action Medals, which are presented to Air Force personnel who have been in combat, having been under direct and hostile fire or physically engaging hostile forces with direct and lethal fire in connection with military operations.
“To all of the men we honor today, you are even more exceptional because you do not seek recognition,” said Magruder. “Many of you did not want this ceremony but you remain consummate special operations professionals nonetheless. It is an honor to serve as your commander and the nation owes you and your loved ones a debt of gratitude.”
Special Tactics Airmen are the Special Operations Command’s air/ground integration force who conduct personnel recovery, global access, precision strike missions and battlefield surgical operations.
This will be the 36th Silver Star Medal awarded to a Special Tactics Airman and only the second Silver Star Medal awarded to a U.S. Airman in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
“As we recognize the heroic actions of these six men, we remember 135 Special Tactics personnel are in harm’s way as I speak in 35 countries around the world,” Haase said of the Air Force’s ground special operations force. “These six men represent them –and all of us well– as humble, competent and courageous Air Commandos.”