10 Hours of White-Knuckle Hell

March 19, 2018

SSgt. Christopher Lewis at an undisclosed location. Lewis was embedded with a Navy SEAL team in Iraq when the enemy ambushed them during the Mosul offensive of 2016. Courtesy photo

SSgt. Christopher F. Lewis remains matter-of-fact about his day on Oct. 20, 2016, an ordeal for which he was awarded a Silver Star on Jan. 19.

A special tactics combat controller embedded with a SEAL team and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq, Lewis was cited for his efforts during the early days of the Mosul offensive as his team moved to clear two ISIS-held villages.

Lewis’ Silver Star citation notes how he “selflessly exposed himself to grave danger” and “risked his life to provide life-sustaining m?edical care to his injured teammate.” He braved heavy fire, directed F-15Es and B-52s to conduct air strikes within 400 meters of his team, destroyed a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, and gave medical attention to teammates.

The citation is notable for its measured understatement, a style Lewis also presents. Another day at the office, the way he tells it. The events of that day were, however, rather lively. In fact, most would describe the day as 10 hours of white-knuckle hell.

Lewis, assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron based at Hurlburt Field in Florida, allows only that at one point in the action, things got pretty “nerve-racking,” but otherwise takes it in stride.

He’d only been with the team in Iraq for about two weeks. On that day, he and about a dozen SEALs headed out at 2 a.m. in a southbound convoy with the Kurds. “It was … probably about 100 vehicles and a few hundred Peshmerga fighters,” he recalled in an interview with Air Force Magazine.

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The convoy was “very, very slow moving,” comprising tanks and, up front, large armored bulldozers carving new paths into the desert because of the danger from explosives on the roads.

Around daybreak, approaching the first outlying village, the convoy started to take mortar fire. It was not yet having any effect, but when he started to use the camera allowing him to control the truck’s machine gun remotely, the system went on the blink. He hopped into the turret and thus “started my whole day behind the machine gun,” he said.

As the force approached the village, it started taking “much more effective fire,” and Lewis had to suppress multiple buildings with the machine gun while simultaneously identifying ground targets for aircraft overhead.

He remained in the turret as he coordinated air attacks on multiple buildings, while also laying down suppressive fire. Then the combined force came under “extremely effective fire” from machine guns, rocket-propelled? grenades, and mortars—enemy positions were as close as 30-40 meters away. As he engaged the attackers, the convoy changed tactics and moved to advance around the village from a different side. His vehicle took up a defensive position while a truck started barreling across the field toward the allied force’s position. Lewis hosed it with fire until it exploded about 100 meters away. As he deduced, it had been a vehicle-born bomb.

“That was pretty nerve-racking, to say the least,” he said.

The force then came under grenade and machine-gun attack from ISIS fighters coming out of a nearby building.

“There must have been a tunnel that came out of the bottom of that building, and a few ISIS fighters had made their way through that tunnel and were able to throw hand grenades out of the windows and start shooting with their machine guns outside of the windows,” aiming for the SEAL team and the Peshmerga, Lewis said.

The ground commander “immediately tells me he wants that building destroyed with munitions from aircraft overhead, so I told him, OK, we’re going to need to get some distance between us and that building,” according to Lewis.

Maneuvering out to some open space, he said, “that’s when we end up driving into … a minefield.”

The convoy halted when the lead explosive ordnance disposal technician, Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, identified an IED.

Finan himself was soon gravely wounded when his own vehicle hit an IED. The concussive blast from that explosion set off about seven other devices nearby.

Lewis was still in the turret at this point, probably 30 meters from the explosions. When the dust settled, he and the other EOD technician in his vehicle dismounted and ran up to Finan’s destroyed truck. They pulled Finan out, let the medics in to help, and removed others from the destroyed vehicle. He then started coordinating Finan’s medical evacuation.

“While this is going on, we’re still receiving fire, we’re only about 200, 300 meters from the village,” he related. “The other aircraft overhead were able to identify a mortar position and also another vehicle-borne IED making its way toward us as well,” he said.

He coordinated fire on both of those targets, eliminating them, and started “moving the patient out to the medevac HLZ [helicopter landing zone].”

SSgt. Christopher Lewis and an armored fighting vehicle in theater. Courtesy photo

According to the citation, the air strikes he called in killed 20 enemy fighters.

While the day seems “very action-packed,” he said, “in real life … in a fight, there’s always a little bit of a lull, here and there.” Still, the off-script convoy operation “was pretty much the whole 10-hour day.”

Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander Air Force Special Operations Command, told the award ceremony audience at Hurlburt, “this is a big deal,” noting the Silver Star is the country’s third-highest award for valor and gallantry.

Of the action that day, Webb noted, “every street was contested, every building was unsafe.” Lewis “epitomizes what we all strive to be in this command. I am extremely proud of him.”

Special operations units are particularly humble and secretive, but comments from an official Air Force interview with Lewis’ troop leader (USAF did not release his name, citing preference to protect the identity of operators within the field) give a fuller picture of what kind of operator Lewis is.

This officer said he has known Lewis for about four years, having served with him in the field.

He and Lewis had deployed together in Operation Inherent Resolve in the summer of 2016, and Lewis was one of the joint terminal attack controllers—JTACs—embedded with a number of special operations teams.

“Chris was our go-to guy, he was one of our most experienced JTACs in the theater, and for that reason, we put him in the toughest spots,” Lewis’ team leader said.

Prior to the battle for Mosul, “we … handpicked him as the most seasoned operator” to go to teams “in order to develop our other terrific operators who were there.”

The officer added, “We just wanted—I wanted—Lew to create the most or the best force multipliers for the impending battle that we could. That was his tasking from us.”

There was minimal ground intelligence from areas where Lewis was operating, the officer said.

Such was the speed of action and movement that “it kept the information from flowing in and out of the teams, so it was coming through in pieces.”

Lewis, after receiving the Silver Star Medal at Hurlburt. Lewis’ team leader said that as one of the theater’s most experienced JTACs, Lewis was their “go-to-guy,” the one thye put in the toughest situations. Photo: SSgt. Victor J. Caputo


Lewis’ humility meant that word of his deeds on that day didn’t spread as quickly as they otherwise might have. “He didn’t really want to talk about everything that he had done,” Lewis’ team leader said.

The “full story finally started to emerge” of what happened on Oct. 20, only through “some different conversations and picking at him.” The ground force commander’s summary of events and “conversations with other JTACs in the area, really validated what Chris had done, and we slowly started to get a grasp of the full picture.”

However, the officer added, “it was at first, not directly from Chris himself because he was being the professional that he is and directing the credit elsewhere.”

It was this officer who initially recommended Lewis for a Bronze Star with Valor. After reviewing Lewis’ case, a higher, joint command later upgraded the recommendation to the Silver Star.

This process of putting Lewis up for the medal—especially for an upgrade—required more digging.

There were witness statements from the ground force commander and the team. The officer said, “Really, it was a task of piecing together this puzzle that was a 10-hour firefight and what exactly Chris did.”

Once word came back that Lewis was to be considered for the medal, “that’s when we kind of dug down a little deeper with Chris and forced him to tell us what exactly happened and what his role specifically was,” said the officer.

Multiple validations were required to document the action.

The officer was surprised but thrilled with the upgrade. “More than anything, I believe it was deserved,” he said.

Lewis’ Silver Star Medal and citation, presented at a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in January. Photo: SSgt. Victor J. Caputo

He explained that “what we were asking the guys to do—and by ‘we’ I mean what the military was asking those guys to do—was embed themselves within a total dangerous site that everyone knew was going to be difficult, and unlike other fights, there was really no coverage or public knowledge of what was going on.”

The Silver Star Medal “in my mind represents the best of all their actions across the joint environment” and recognizes “the danger they put themselves [in] and the sacrifices they made to break into Mosul.”

More broadly speaking, this officer pointed to the importance of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron in overall military operations.

The 23rd STS was, at that time, dispersed across all areas of action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Within a couple of weeks of Lewis’ actions, another member of his unit received an Air Force Cross. SSgt. Richard Hunter, a special tactics combat controller, was among 10 who received medals from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson for efforts during a fierce firefight in a village near Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, just a few weeks later, on Nov. 2, 2016.

Those two commendations demonstrate “the pervasive impact” the 23rd had on “all battlefields and all services and the ODAs [Green Beret Operational Detachment-Alphas] … on a daily basis to the combined effort,” he said.

For his part, Lewis found this assignment different and more challenging in some ways than his previous two deployments, which had both been in Afghanistan.

Those tours, he said, were mainly “helicopter assault missions, where you spend about a day or two on the ground clearing through a village.”

The terrain there had been much more mountainous than in Iraq, where the landscape was much more open.

The biggest difference in Iraq, Lewis observed, came from the urban setting. It was an extremely hard fight, “as far as identifying where you’re actually taking contact from,” because ISIS had knocked “four-foot holes out of each wall in each building so they can maneuver through the whole city and only spend … one second in an alleyway, going from building to building.”

Airmen ready a JDAM on Oct. 19, 2016. Guided munitions were a big part of helping to eliminate ISIS in Mosul. Photo: SrA. Miles Wilson

In Iraq, ISIS had “extensive tunnel networks as well.” Later, coalition forces discovered from left-behind maps and documents that “they had entire cities mapped out, … they labeled buildings down to the number, so they could command and control themselves very well.”

Overall, this created “much, much bigger problems and more difficulty targeting them than compared to previous deployments in Afghanistan,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who has been in the Air Force for just over eight years, said he didn’t ask for career guidance in high school. He “just knew” he wanted to “join and … go fight, you know, like just how a young man feels.”

A family friend who’d had prior service in Army Special Forces heard about Lewis’ interest and “pointed me toward this job,” he said.

Lewis trusted the advice and “just went to the Air Force recruiter.”

He has no doubt when asked whether he made the right choice.

“Oh my God yeah, I think I have the best job there is, honestly,” he said.The coalition battle to retake Mosul and its environs from ISIS lasted nine months. In December 2017, the Iraqi government finally declared ISIS defeated and driven from its territory.