Two Air Commandos Awarded Air Force Crosses

Retired MSgt. Keary Miller, left, and former SSgt. Christopher Baradat were awarded Air Force Crosses on Thursday at a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Photos courtesy of the Air Force

Hurlburt Field, Fla. Two former special tactics airmen were awarded the Air Force Cross at the same ceremony here Thursday for heroic actions in separate battles in Afghanistan more than a decade apart.

Retired MSgt. Keary Miller, a pararescueman, was honored for his actions at the Battle of Takur Gar, also known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge, on March 4, 2002. Former SSgt. Christopher Baradat, a combat controller, was honored for his actions in the Sono Valley on April 6, 2013. Col. Michael Martin, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, hosted the ceremony, which was also attended by Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein presented the awards.

It was the first time two Air Force Crosses have been given simultaneously, and these awards mark the eighth and ninth Air Force Crosses earned by special tactics airmen since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Both awards were upgraded from Silver Stars in January after a Department of Defense-wide review of medals earned during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Miller was assigned to the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron of the Kentucky Air National Guard. On March 4, 2002, he approached the mountain of Takur Gar in an MH-47E Chinook as part of a quick reaction force tasked with recovering stranded personnel. His helicopter took rocket-propelled grenade fire and small arms fire from well-fortified enemy positions near the summit and crash landed. In treacherous terrain and four to five feet of snow, Miller laid fire on the enemy positions and established a casualty collection point.

He dashed in the snow through enemy fire multiple times to help gather wounded and deceased comrades and administer life-saving medical care to four service members. He also crossed the open battlefield several times to distribute ammunition to other friendly positions, and dislodged the MH-47 tail gun to reposition it toward a gap in the barraged group’s coverage. As the conflict shifted, he helped move the casualties to a safer collection point on two separate occasions. Because of his bravery and skill over the course of a 17-hour battle, ten wounded US personnel were delivered to safety and seven service members killed in action were recovered.

Baradat was with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, Pope Army Airfield, N.C., and deployed three times to Afghanistan and once with the Crisis Response Force. On April 6, 2013, he was attached to an Army Special Forces team tasked as a quick reaction force to rescue 66 Afghan military and intelligence personnel who had been pinned down by Taliban and al Qaeda militants in the Sono Valley of Kunar Province. When they arrived at the valley mouth, they realized their MRAPs were too wide to proceed, so the team cross loaded into their Afghan partners’ vehicles.

Along with eight other special forces team members, Baradat left his vehicle and went ahead of the convoy on foot to close within 1,000 meters of the stranded element. Baradat and his team sprinted twice along the valley road under heavy machine gun fire to take cover in small compounds closer to the trapped friendlies. Seeking to direct A-10 fire overhead, Baradat found the valley’s terrain and the compound walls prevented his communication with close air support assets.

Over the objections of his team leader, Baradat stepped out into the open middle of the compound—into direct enemy fire—in order to establish clear communication with the A-10s and AC-130s overhead, directing cannon fire as well as 500-pound bombs. Once the stranded troops had been recovered, Baradat rode out of the valley on the running board of his vehicle—in the midst of heavy fire and scraping his body on the narrow canyon walls—in order to continue directing accurate air support. Over three hours of battle, Baradat directed 13 500-pound bombs and more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition. He also helped destroy 13 enemy positions and kill 50 enemy fighters. In the process, the team secured the safety of 150 coalition partners, in no small part due to the courage and skill of Baradat.

After the ceremony, the award recipients demonstrated the “remarkable humility” that Goldfein said is part of the character of the special tactics community. Miller told reporters “it’s not the medal, it’s the oath we take” to serve and defend that is most important to him today. Baradat told reporters, “We don’t do the kind of stuff that we do downrange for attention. We do our job, and however we have to get it done we do that.” He said he wanted the historic award ceremony to draw attention to the work of all special tactics airmen. He said he hopes “it brings a light to what men are doing downrange and to what my team did that day.”

Goldfein told Miller and Baradat that they “represent the finest traits America can ask of its warriors.” Their actions on those days in Afghanistan, he said, speak powerfully about the reliance of the Air Force and the joint force on the work of special tactics airmen. “You do what others cannot or will not do,” he said, “and you do it because it must be done, and because there is no one better.” Goldfein recounted the story of his own rescue by air commandos in 1999 when his F-16 was shot down over Serbia and he was stranded behind enemy lines. A rescue crew “inserted by air commandos” on that day “risked their lives to save mine,” he said and added that he has “a lifetime of thanks to offer in return.”

After the ceremony, Goldfein emphasized the significance of special tactics work to the Air Force as a whole. “There’s very little that we do without our ground battlefield airmen,” he told reporters, and “we rely on our air commandos to actually gain the security we need to do our mission, which is air superiority.” He also continued to praise Miller and Baradat for “the courage, the commitment, the sacrifice, the innovative spirit that they brought to the battlefield.” When special tactics airmen who had attended the ceremony gathered afterwards for their traditional round of “memorial push-ups” to honor their fallen teammates, Goldfein and Wright joined right along.