Ambushed Combat Controller Kept Cool Under Fire

SSgt. Richard Hunter, a combat controller assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, will be awarded the Air Force Cross during a ceremony Tuesday at Hurlburt Field, Fla., for his heroic actions in Afghanistan on Nov. 2, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Air Force.

On Tuesday, SSgt. Richard Hunter, a combat controller assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., will receive the Air Force Cross for his actions directing airstrikes and fighting off an enemy ambush in northern Kunduz province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 2, 2016.

Hunter was part of a 55-man special forces team tasked with finding a “high value target,” he told reporters on a conference call Monday. The team was made up of a 13-member Army Special Forces detachment and more than 40 Afghan commandos.

They were inserted by CH-47 helicopters around 11 p.m. local time. The first sign to Hunter that something might be amiss was on approach to their insertion spot, when they noticed their landing fields were flooded in about 12-24 inches of water. “They’d either irrigated the fields, or they knew we were coming so they tried to limit where we could land,” Hunter said.

The team trudged through the muck and arrived at the village to undertake what was “a pretty standard mission for our team,” Hunter said. They received a volley of “pretty normal probing fire” upon approach, but they “dispatched that” and moved on.

After searching the entire village, the team was getting ready to call it a night after looking for their target in “one last compound.” The structure was enclosed behind a large metal gate about 12 feet tall. As the team prepared to “blow it up” and enter the compound, a hand grenade came sailing over the gate. That’s when Hunter knew they had found the target.

In no time, “we found ourselves in a through-ambush,” Hunter said. Fire was pouring on the team from “270 degrees, all around us.”

The entire team was “all contained inside one alleyway with only one opening at one end,” Maj. Alexander Hill, a pilot assigned to the 4th Special Operations Squadron, told reporters on the conference call. Hill was piloting an AC-130 gunship overhead that night, and he will receive a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. The well-planned Taliban assault amounted to “a massive ambush where people were firing down on them from two-plus story compounds and buildings as they tried to withdraw down that alleyway.”

Hunter was in the middle of it all, returning ground fire on the enemy and directing airstrikes from overhead on Taliban positions as he identified them. “Within the first two minutes of the ambush we had approximately 20 casualties,” Hunter told reporters. Hunter positioned himself closest to the enemy in order to better direct danger-close strikes and give his team a chance to make it out.

For special operations teams in Afghanistan, “shooting danger-close isn’t out of the ordinary,” Hill said. “We train continuously to be able to employ our weapons as close as we ended up having to this night.” But the number of strikes and their duration was extraordinary. “Typically … it’ll be a few rounds, [and] the target either runs away from the friendlies or we’ve destroyed the target,” Hill said. “That was 107 minutes of danger-close.”

Hunter agreed. “It’s not irregular to have danger-close scenarios, but to have that type of danger-close engagements for that duration, I’ve never heard of it.” The strikes were so close to Hunter, Hill said he is “pretty sure we concussed him a few times.”

While directing strikes landing on enemy positions as close as 12 meters away from himself, Hunter led his teammates in dragging wounded comrades down the alleyway to a casualty collection point in another compound. At one point he heard a cry for help and left the safety of the compound again, entering direct enemy machine gun fire to retrieve another wounded team member and drag him to safety.

Meanwhile, “insurgents just continue to pour on in waves,” said Hill. His AC-130 fired for so long that it ran out of point-detonated 105-mm rounds. It had air-burst rounds remaining, but those are typically reserved for targets “400-500 meters away from friendlies,” Hill said. Nonetheless, they knew they had to use it. “We pretty much told SSgt. Hunter to put his head down and we fired one round closer than … anyone’s ever fired an air-burst round.”

And it did the trick, finally quieting down the enemy on the east of the ground team.

By 7:45 a.m. the next morning, Hunter and his team were carried out of the village on the same CH-47s they rode in on.

Over the eight-hour assault, Hunter directed four AC-130 and AH-64 aircraft in dropping 1,787 munitions, according to his Air Force Cross citation. As a result of his actions, 57 lives were saved and 27 enemies killed.

“Integration is key to everything we do,” Hunter told reporters. “We train for the chaos scenario all the time,” so “when this situation happens, it’s no surprise.” What he remembers most from that night is how, even with “so much chaos happening on the ground … at no point did I ever fear for my life.” That’s because “overhead we’ve got this gunship just raining all sorts of hate and taking care of us completely.”

As to the Air Force Cross—the service’s highest honor for valor in combat, second only to the Medal of Honor—Hunter said he was “humbled to be even considered for this.” In large part, that is because “most guys in my career field would have done the same thing,” he said. In many ways, Hill added, “What this point towards is thousands of gunship missions that go on every day and every night around the world and have gone on for decades.”

(Read his Air Force Cross citation.)