Christopher Baradat’s Air Force Cross

July 28, 2017

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein shakes hands with Baradat after presenting him with the Air Force Cross at a Hurlburt Field, Fla., ceremony April 20, 2017. Baradat is separated from the service. Photo: SrA. Ryan Conroy

On April 6, 2013, SSgt. Christopher G. Baradat was sitting on alert for a quick reaction force (QRF) in Kunar province, one of the most notorious sanctuaries for Taliban and al Qaeda militants in all of Afghanistan. Baradat, a combat controller deployed with the 21st Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, and his team received a call that a group of 100 Afghan military and intelligence personnel had been ambushed and were pinned down in the Sono valley as they returned to base from an intelligence-gathering mission. Baradat’s QRF was tasked with fighting their way into the valley, connecting with the stranded team, and getting everyone back out again safely.

Over the next three hours, Baradat would call in decisive air support as part of the ground rescue team, directing more than a dozen 500-pound bombs and nearly 7,000 rounds of ammunition to hold off 100 enemy fighters spread over 13 different positions. Because of the steep canyon walls, he would be forced to step directly into the line of fire time and again in order to maintain line-of-sight communication with two AC-130s and six A-10s overhead.

“A lot of the difficulty was just coordinating between the different air assets that were coming in for strikes and having to move other aircraft out of the way or make sure that they weren’t in harm’s way,” Baradat said earlier this year.

The QRF comprised 29 US Special Forces and infantry personnel, 73 Afghan intelligence operators, and one American OGA, or Other Government Agency, advisor.

As the rescue team proceeded deep into the Sono valley, they realized that their four well-armored Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs) were simply too wide to pass between the steep, rocky walls. So the special operators cross-loaded into lightly armored trucks and proceeded into the valley, leaving the infantry members behind with the M-ATVs.

Still, the rocky terrain and the narrow road made progress slow. Concerned about the condition of the stranded party, Baradat and eight other team members left the vehicles and went forward on foot ahead of the convoy.

When they closed to within 1,000 meters of the pinned-down element, they started taking heavy machine gun fire from the ridgeline to the south. Through a flurry of bullets, they dashed another 200 meters to a nearby compound with a mud hut, where they could take cover. Baradat established communication with an A-10 Warthog overhead and directed 30 mm fire at the enemy to give his team space to keep moving forward.

As they closed to within 200 meters of the stranded party, the enemy returned with a vengeance. This time there were about 100 militants delivering rocket-propelled grenades along with machine gun fire. Snipers were also taking aim at the team from the ridges to keep them from reaching their cut-off comrades. The QRF team ducked inside another mud building for cover, and Baradat again began calling for close air support.

Now that he was deeper in the valley, however, Baradat found it was much more difficult to establish communication with overhead assets. Walls that were thick enough to provide cover from enemy bullets were thick enough to block his comms. He had A-10s and AC-130s positioned to bring critical fire to the fight, but he couldn’t tell them where to direct it.

Losing little time, Baradat left cover and planted himself in the compound’s courtyard to re-establish communication and direct air strikes against the adversaries closing in on his team. He also gained a much better view of enemy positions and was able to direct machine gun fire and 500-pound bombs with deadly accuracy. Despite the objections of his teammates and his team leader, Baradat remained in the open—braving wave after wave of bullets, with the dirt from the rounds spraying up against his body—to stay in contact with close air support.

The air strikes under Baradat’s control proved decisive in keeping the enemy at bay while his team reached the stranded element and escorted them back to the main convoy. Once the entire QRF was reunified, along with the rescued personnel, the full group presented an irresistible target. The militants opened fire on them again with full force.

As the convoy hurriedly prepared to move west out of the valley, Baradat was aware that he would need to maintain communications with close air support overhead to give his team a chance to make it out safely. He couldn’t do that from inside an armored M-ATV because the signal wouldn’t be strong enough and he wouldn’t have a choice view of the flanking enemy positions as his team egressed the valley.

So instead of taking his seat, Baradat jumped onto the running board of an M-ATV. One of his teammates grabbed onto his belt to secure his position as the vehicle made its way down the narrow valley road. Machine gun, rocket-propelled grenade, and sniper fire continued to pour down onto the convoy and the completely exposed Baradat.

At some points, the width of the valley left no more than two feet between the vehicle sides and the rock walls. With canyon rock scraping his back, head, and boot heels, Baradat was still directing A-10 and AC-130 strikes.

As the convoy approached the mouth of the valley, he noticed the trail vehicle had fallen behind. He left his perch on the running board, jumped to the valley floor, and charged through a hail of bullets toward the lagging element. With a better view of the enemy positions assaulting the vehicle, Baradat called in three 500-pound bombs to disrupt the militant fire and allow the vehicle to rejoin the convoy.

He then returned to his vehicle and jumped back on the running board as the entire convoy proceeded safely out of the valley. Through his courageous actions and willingness to put himself directly in harm’s way, Baradat helped save the lives of more than 200 US and Afghan team members.

Baradat’s commanding officer at the time was Col. Spencer Cocanour, currently commander of the 720th Special Tactics Group at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Cocanour told Air Force Magazine he was most impressed by Baradat’s calm ability to sequence multiple close air support aircraft.

“He ends up Winchestering”—that is, completely emptying of all ordnance—“two AC-130s and six A-10s over the course of the engagement,” Cocanour explained. One of the AC-130s had to perform an ordnance “emergency resupply.”

At one point the enemy presence was so thick that Baradat requested a strike from a B-1 bomber. In all his deployments, Cocanour said, “it was the one time I actually heard someone request a B-1.” The colonel said, “He needed something that was carrying a whole lot of ordnance.” As it happened, a B-1 wasn’t available that day, so Baradat’s request went unfulfilled.

The special tactics airman was initially awarded a Silver Star for his actions in the Sono valley. But after a Department of Defense-wide review of medals received for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, his medal was upgraded to an Air Force Cross this past January.

The award is the highest service-specific honor for valor in combat, second only to the Medal of Honor. He is only the ninth airman to receive the Air Force Cross since Sept. 11, 2001.

Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein awarded the medal to Baradat at a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Fla., on April 20, 2017. Goldfein also presented an Air Force Cross to retired MSgt. Keary J. Miller that day, for actions Miller had taken, also in Afghanistan, 11 years before Baradat’s deeds. (See “Survival on Takur Gar,” August 2017.)

“You do what others cannot or will not do,” Goldfein told Baradat during the ceremony, “and you do it because it must be done—and because there is no one better.” He praised Baradat for his “remarkable humility” and for “the courage, the commitment, the sacrifice, the innovative spirit … brought to the battlefield.”

Before the ceremony, Baradat told reporters, “It was just very steep, rocky terrain so there was some difficulty in identifying where stuff was happening or coming at us from, so it just took some time to work through those issues.”

“Very unassuming,” is how Cocanour describes Baradat. “You would not pick him out” and say, “That guy’s an operator.”

That was certainly the case at his Air Force Cross ceremony. “We don’t do the kind of stuff that we do downrange for attention,” Baradat told reporters. “We do our job, and however we have to get it done, we do that.”

Cocanour was willing to say more. “Chris epitomizes the confidence and courage” of Air Force special tactics operators, he said.

Or, as Goldfein put it, Baradat’s heroism should remind us all that “there’s very little that we do without our ground battlefield airmen.” Goldfein told reporters, “We rely on our air commandos to actually gain the security we need to do our mission.”