WASHINGTON — As bullets cracked around his head, Air Force Master Sgt. Thomas Case stayed cool and directed pinpoint airstrikes on Taliban positions less than a stone's throw away.
And with two foreign fighters coming at the commander of the Army unit to which Case was assigned as a joint terminal attack controller, he shielded the officer with his body and took them down with his rifle.
For his heroism fulfilling both the air and ground aspects of the JTAC's job during a battle on July 16 and 17, 2009, Case on Tuesday became just the third airman to be awarded a second Silver Star medal. Case, who's now part of the 18th Air Support Operations Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., received the honor in a ceremony at Pope Field.
As a staff sergeant in 2004, he was awarded his first Silver Star for an operation during the 2003 invasion of Iraq to seize and hold the Haditha dam. Over the course of several days, controlling up to 14 aircraft simultaneously, Case was responsible for over 300 enemy casualties, the destruction of dozens of enemy tanks, scores of artillery pieces and even a few enemy boats.
The 2009 battle in the Khost province of Afghanistan, for which he earned his second Silver Star, was an entirely different affair.
"It's apples and oranges," he said. "You go from fighting a conventional military force to fighting an insurgency."
It was a nighttime operation deep in the Khost-Gardez Pass in eastern Afghanistan. A platoon of Rangers, accompanied by Case, climbed out of helicopters a few miles from a group of mountain camps where they hoped to capture or kill a specific Taliban combatant, as well as disrupt insurgent activities in the area.
The began a tough climb toward the objective, but went off course and soon came under heavy fire from a machine gun in a fighting position just 15 yards away.
"The enemy had the high ground," Case said. "We didn't have a lot of time or room to maneuver."
According to the Air Force narrative of the incident, "Pinned down in the center of the platoon's formation, Sergeant Case recognized they needed to employ close air support. With machine guns rounds impacting the ground and trees within two feet of him, Sergeant Case remained exposed to enemy fire so he could locate the enemy position."
But then Case realized he couldn't call in an airstrike from a AC-130 gunship orbiting overhead because his communications were down because wires on his radio had been damaged.
"Bullets were flying around. I'd love to be the guy able to say a round had sliced through his wires," he said. "The truth is it actually got hung up. It was the deciduous forest there."
He was able to partially piece his equipment back together amid the onslaught, and finally directed the gunships crew to destroy the enemy position with fire from its 25 mm cannon.
Case said he had few qualms about directing an airstrike so close to the platoon's position.
"The ground force commander asked me what the hell I was doing," he said. "I just said, ‘Sir, that's the best crew up there.' It was just incredible to see them put their bullets where they were supposed to go."
After directing two danger close airstrikes, Case saw through his night-vision goggles that two insurgents were bounding down the hill toward him and the Army officer commanding the mission. Instinctively, his fighting sense switched from air to ground.
"As they closed within fifteen meters of their position, Sergeant Case literally placed himself between the enemy personnel and the ground force commander in order to protect him from their gunfire," according to the Air Force narrative of the battle. "Employing his M-4 rifle and directing the ground force commander to take cover, he then killed both insurgents, both of whom turned out to be highly trained foreign fighters."
Case continued shooting and continued directing airstrikes, and within about half an hour, he estimates, the Taliban in the area were dead or on the run, and the Rangers began securing control of the mountainous terrain around them.
Years later, Case and the Ranger commander, Capt. Carmen Bucci, maintain a strong bond. Bucci attended the medal ceremony Thursday.
Firing his weapon in a ground engagement was nothing new for Case, but in retrospect, he said the danger-close nature of the airstrikes he'd been forced to call in were unusual, and the tremendous noise of the big rounds slamming into the slope some fifty feet away are something that has stuck with him.
"With the proficiency of that crew, I'd do the same thing again," he said. "I certainly hope I don't have to, but I would."