The first encounter with the enemy on the night of April 25 last year in Afghanistan was "pretty standard," Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch said. But the second had his unit pinned down in a "massive firefight."
On April 9, in a ceremony at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia, Kelsch will be awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third highest award for valor, for his heroic actions during that fateful firefight – in which he called in "danger-close" fire missions and kept fighting even after his body armor stopped a round to his chest. In a rare recognition of extraordinary heroism, Kelsch will also be presented with the Bronze Star with Combat "V" device for his actions in a previous engagement in Afghanistan.
On April 25, 2018, soldiers from the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment and partnered Afghan Special Forces had come down a narrow footpath and a creek bed single file, and had difficulty coming on line to return fire, Kelsch said Friday in a conference call from Hurlburt Air Base in Florida.
Earlier, they had engaged in a brief firefight on a mission to interdict a "high-value" target, and had been pursuing a secondary mission against another target when they were ambushed, Kelsch said.
The ambush was complex, he said, with the enemy in well-covered positions and using small arms, fragmentation grenades and "belt-fed machine gunfire so overwhelming there were initially fireballs going off everywhere."
There was an AC-130 gunship, overhead but the tree canopy made it difficult to call in fire from what cover he could find, said Kelsch, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller assigned to the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing, Air Force Special Operations Command.
"One individual in front of me was struck in the chest by a round," Kelsch said, and at first "because of the way he fell, I thought he had been killed in action."
"We started to discuss how to get out of the situation," he said. "Because of the tree cover, the aircraft overhead couldn't see me [or] … the target. I had to continually leave the protection of cover in order adjust the rounds."
With the consent of his ground commander, Kelsch began calling in danger-close fire missions from the AC-130 that stretched the standard limits of danger-close missions. Danger-close for 40mm rounds was 90 meters from a friendly position.
"They were keyholing rounds at 35 meters from my position," Kelsch said.
When the 40mm rounds were not having the effect he wanted, Kelsch directed fire from the AC-130's 105mm howitzer. Danger close for the 105 was 190 meters from friendly positions, but "we were shooting that at 60 meters," he said.
With cover from the AC-130, Kelsch and his commander went forward to get the wounded individual who had been shot in the chest. The individual would ultimately survive the engagement.
In the course of dragging the wounded man back, Kelsch also was shot in the chest. He said the round went through a magazine on his chest and was stopped by his armor chest plate.
Kelsch then called in airstrikes by F-16 Fighting Falcons with 500-pound precision-guided bombs to break the attack and allow his unit to withdraw.
He credited the skills of the AC-130 gunship crew for his survival.
"If it were not for the true competency of that AC-130 crew, I wouldn't be here today," he said. "So it was a very precarious situation and the aircrew really brought their A-game that night and made sure we got out of there."
For security reasons, Air Force Special Operations did not disclose the location of the firefight in which Kelsch earned the Silver Star, but Kelsch stressed that the Afghan Special Forces who partnered with the Army Rangers that night acted professionally.
"The Afghan partner forces are true patriots for their country," he said. "They want their country to be rid of terrorists. They want peace. They're professional, they're lethal, they're highly trained. It was an honor to work with them."
He also said it was likely that he would be going back to Afghanistan.
"We're still at war. We still have a mission to do," he said. "There's still a big mission and a lot to do over there. We'll be going back."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.