SAN ANTONIO -- An Air Force combat controller credited with protecting a 100-man special operations unit with precision airstrikes during an intense Afghanistan firefight received a Silver Star on Wednesday for his actions.
Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a 27-year-old Austin, Texas native, said during a roundtable with reporters that he was humbled to join a long list of special tactics airmen who have received the award, but noted countless moments of battlefield heroism that went unrecognized.
"There are guys who didn't get the recognition I'm getting," said Thiem, who is assigned to the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.
Thiem's Silver Star is the 36th awarded to a special tactics airman since 9/11, which accounts for more than half of Silver Star recipients in the Air Force since 2001, according to Capt. Katrina Cheesman, an Air Force spokeswoman. The Silver Star is the third highest award recognizing battlefield heroism.
Combat controllers are airmen assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command and are responsible for the close coordination of airstrikes while managing aircraft traffic, from fighter jets to gunships to unmanned drones. They are among the most vital ground personnel in Afghanistan after combat troops were scaled back in the 15-year war, supporting Afghan troops with airstrikes and aerial surveillance missions as the Taliban and Islamic State group retake swaths of the country.
Taliban digs in
The midnight mission given to about 100 Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos team: secure Pul-e Khumri, the capital of the northeastern Baghlan Province. Taliban forces had infiltrated and cut power to swaths of Kabul, igniting unrest and chaos in the capital 144 miles to the south, Thiem said.
The team marched about four hours on Feb. 22, 2016 toward the objective, weighed down with heavy equipment in cold and wet conditions.
Flooded fields near their first objective pointed to a high level of preparation among the Taliban, which forced coalition troops to choose from limited approaches into the village.
"We were moving exactly how they wanted us to," Thiem said of the Taliban, adding local Afghan army units could not previously penetrate deep into the area without U.S. air support, leaving the Taliban a year to construct tunnel and trench systems in and around Pul-e Khumri.
The element was met with a barrage of machine gun, rifle and RPG fire near their first objective of a walled compound. Insurgent radio traffic intercepted by friendly forces pointed to a complex ambush. Insurgents fired from behind murder holes—small ports knocked through concrete walls to conceal barrel flashes and smoke.
No previous intelligence reports pointed to their sophisticated preparation, Thiem said. Night-vision goggles allowed enemy fighters to focus accurate fire at coalition troops glowing and blinking underneath infrared strobes atop their helmets used to signal themselves as friendlies to fellow ground troops and aircraft circling above.
"We have to mark ourselves [with infrared strobes] for aircraft, but it backfired on us," Thiem said.
A 14-hour fight
Two elements were immediately pinned down by machine gun fire, and Thiem did something he would repeat several times throughout the firefight that would last 14 hours: he exposed himself to enemy fire to coordinate air support.
Thiem removed himself from cover to gather targeting data for a pair of F-16s overhead. It was a dangerous close-fire mission. Two 500-lbs. bombs destroyed enemy positions just 35 and 80 meters from friendly forces.
Coalition troops regrouped for exfiltration. Taliban soldiers used the opportunity to launch additional attacks, wounding eight personnel. Thiem maneuvered 100 meters through enemy fire to account for a friendly element before calling in more strikes.
The F-16s screamed overhead on six low flights designed to overpower the senses of fighters with a jet-wash and thunderous engine roars.
In the chaos of triaging the wounded, coalition troops realized a nightmare scenario: four Afghan commandos were still missing after a head count.
Thiem, while coordinating precision strikes, orchestrated drone surveillance of the battlefield to locate three of the commandos, who were pinned down and wounded.
He led a recovery team on foot with an AH-64 Apache escorting the movement, calling in runs to rake enemy positions with the Apache's 30-millimeter chain gun as he held one side of a litter filled by a wounded commando.
The recovery team bounded back 200 meters to the rally point, but there was one commando still missing.
Thiem and the recovery team launched one last effort under fire as he coordinated two more Apache gun runs, including eight 2.75-inch rocket strikes pounding enemy sniper positions as they reached the fourth missing commando and brought him back to the exfiltration point.
Thiem continued airstrikes while coordinating medevac support. Fourteen hours after first contact, he coordinated 18 close air support engagements, resulting in 33 dead Taliban troops.
Eight coalition troops were wounded. None were killed.
Thiem's award citation notes his aggressive targeting is the reason casualties were not worse.
"Knowing everything is resting on your shoulders, disregard for yourself takes over to get the rest of the guys out of there," Thiem said.
Ahead of the ceremony, Thiem described the Silver Star as an exclamation point for the pride of the team's collective effort.
"The most heartfelt things I've heard are from the Army [Special Forces] guys," Thiem said. "I don't know that I have any words when they say ‘you saved my life'."