An Air Force combat controller received the Air Force's second highest award for valor on March 10 for saving his 10-man team from being overrun twice in a 6.5-hour battle in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Zachary J. Rhyner received the Air Force Cross for his actions on April 6, 2008, in the Shok Valley. Although shot in the left leg, he called in airstrikes, fired his M-4 rifle at the enemy and helped move other wounded people down a cliff. At the time of the incident, Rhyner was a senior airman who had completed training less than a year earlier.
Rhyner was part of a 130-man combined assault force whose mission was to enter Shok Valley and capture a high-value target who was funding the insurgency. Shok Valley is located below 60-foot cliffs. The mission objective was at the top of the mountains surrounding the valley.
“This was the first time U.S. special operations forces entered the territory,” said Capt. Stewart Parker, the detachment commander at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, at the time.
“Initial infiltration began that day with snow on the ground, jagged rocks, a fast-moving river and a cliff,” said Rhyner. “There was a 5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up. The ridgeline trail was out of control.”
The U.S. and Afghan troops expected to encounter fire from about 70 insurgents.
“We were caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached,” said 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.”
“I have never seen a situation this bad,” said Parker, who was monitoring the situation back at the base.
Rhyner was shot within the first 15 minutes, according to an account from the Air Force Special Operations Command. The team came under fire from all directions from snipers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"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."
"There was nowhere to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were trapped by the enemy," Rhyner said. "I was calling in airstrikes and firing, while moving the wounded down (the cliff)."
Sergeant Gutierrez said he could see insurgent fire coming from the buildings on the hilltops above them and was trying to get across the river to meet up with Rhyner.
"Zach and I were in constant radio contact," he said. "I could hear the ammunition, sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades 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," Sergeant Gutierrez said.
As the enemy surrounded them, Rhyner, who was being treated for his injuries, directed multiple rockets and gun runs from AH-64 Apache helicopters against enemy positions. Rhyner had been calling in airstrikes 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," Rhyner 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."
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.
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.
"If it wasn't for Zach, I wouldn't be here," Sergeant Gutierrez said.
Excerpts taken from article by Capt. Laura Ropelis, Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs, Dec. 25, 2008