"It's not someplace you try to be as a JTAC," Staff Sgt Christopher Lewis said.
It's what Lewis, a combat controller assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Florida, remembers as he jumped on the back of his team's gun truck, exposed to Islamic State fighters' enemy fire just outside Mosul on Oct. 20, 2016. Since the truck's .50-caliber machine gun jammed, someone had to operate it. Lewis did just that while calling in airstrikes that would rain down bombs within 400 meters of his team's position.
Lewis on Friday was awarded the Silver Star for his actions while engaged in the 10-hour long firefight during the Mosul offensive under Operation Inherent Resolve. Lewis, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller who was featured in the Air Force's 2017 "Portraits in Courage" program, was embedded with a Navy SEAL team alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces for the mission.
"We're reminded that heroes walk amongst us," Lt Gen Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said during Lewis's ceremony at Hurlburt.
Lewis, 27, is the 43rd recipient of the military's third-highest valor award for the command since 9/11, Webb said.
"The battle for Mosul was imminent," Webb said. Four days before the SEALs and Peshmerga team would head out, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had declared the beginning of the assault to recapture Mosul.
- Air Force Combat Controller to Receive Silver Star for Firefight in Iraq
- Sailor Killed in Mosul Was Attached to SEAL Team
- Combat Controller Receives Air Force Cross for Valor in Afghanistan
Lewis joined the Air Force in 2009, and deployed to Afghanistan twice in 2014 and 2015, and Iraq in 2016. He had only been in Iraq for two weeks before the Mosul assault began. Lewis will deploy once again soon for Operation Inherent Resolve, he said during a telephone interview Thursday.
The sieges in Mosul, Lewis said, were unlike the wide-open terrain environment he experienced in Afghanistan, where he routinely called in for helicopter assault assistance during village clearance missions.
"ISIS had held [Mosul] for so long, and it was a much more urban fight, and a much larger clearing force with the Peshmerga forces -- hundreds of people on the ground you're trying to keep track of at once," Lewis told Military.com.
"Think of a World War II battle [where] a major offensive force [is] attacking a major defensive force," Webb said during the ceremony on Friday. "Chris had many roles this day," Webb said.
Under fire from almost the beginning of the 2:30 a.m. assault, Lewis called in multiple airstrikes to destroy buildings, while operating the gun turret. His 300-plus member team was then quickly confronted by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) barreling toward them. Lewis was able to detonate it with the machine gun, just 100 meters from his position.
"It's ups and downs of adrenaline," Lewis said. "And you're encountering things that you never really have before," he said of the VBIED. "ISIS...had prepared it for a fight," he said.
The team repositioned later through the day, but found themselves in another ambush: a road full of IEDs, "resulting in one of my teammates being killed," Lewis said.
That was Chief Petty Officer Jason C. "JJ" Finan, who Webb said Lewis stayed with until the very end.
Finan, the lead Explosive Ordnance Disposal tech on the team, had realized their forces were in the middle of a minefield of IEDs, and called an immediate stop for movement. But as they began backing out of the minefield, Finan's vehicle -- along with seven others -- detonated.
Lewis lept from the turret vehicle and ran toward Finan, and managed to assist two other wounded while calling in for medical evacuation.
"Chris hijacks a pickup and drives JJ to the medevac helicopter landing zone," Webb said.
He continued, "While I may be, possibly, speaking out of turn, I think I'm on confident ground to say that Chris is accepting this award of the Silver Star with absolute foremost in his memory, the memory of JJ Finan along with the rest of his teammates."
Missions throughout continued for weeks following, Lewis said. "That was just day one of my deployment, but this is what we did everyday" for months, he said.
Webb said Lewis is the "embodiment" of what a combat controller and a member of the special tactics community is, "and that is the culture of persistent adaptability."
"This has been a mindset since our founding [to] get the job done with what you have," Webb said Friday.
"I can tell you with assurity, air commandos are already ready for the next war because we anticipate and adapt for it. We know where and how we're going to be the most effective," he said.