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VFW Magazine August 2016 : Page 22

AIR FORCE SPECIAL OPS PLAYED VITAL YET UNHERALDED ROLE IN AFGHANISTAN WAR B Y D AVID S EARS Though seldom in the public eye, Air Force tactical air control party members, combat controllers, pararescuemen, special operations weathermen and special tactics personnel have fought behind the scenes for 15 years. In doing so, they have racked up seven Air Force Crosses. Here is a glimpse of who they are, their exploits on the battlefield and their valor. Pararescuemen with the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron secure the area after being lowered from an HH-60 Pave Hawk during a mission in Afghanistan on Nov. 7, 2012. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. JONATHAN SNYDER 22 • VFW • AUGUST 2016

Air Force Special Ops Played Vital Yet Unheralded Role In Afghanistan War

David Sears

Though seldom in the public eye, Air Force tactical air control party members, combat controllers, pararescuemen, special operations weathermen and special tactics personnel have fought behind the scenes for 15 years. In doing so, they have racked up seven Air Force Crosses. Here is a glimpse of who they are, their exploits on the battlefield and their valor.<br /> <br /> Despite painful leg wounds, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew J. Greiner continued calling in airstrikes. In one hand he held a shrapnel-peppered map, in the other an anesthetic lollipop.<br /> <br /> Greiner, a combat controller detached from the Air Force’s 21st Special Tactics Squadron (STS) and assigned to the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (SFG), was part of an 80-man Afghan- American force conducting a Sept. 21, 2014, clearing operation in Helmand province—a Taliban-dense region.<br /> <br /> A 40mm grenade had just detonated above the doorway of a building strongpoint occupied by Greiner, an Afghani interpreter and Green Beret Capt. Evan M.Lacenski.<br /> <br /> “[The blast] threw shrapnel straight down,” recalled ground forces commander Lacenski. Luckily, Lacenski “just got thrown,” but Greiner and the interpreter lay wounded in the courtyard. “One of my medics runs out through grenade fire,” Lacenski recalled in a recent interview. “[He] grabs Greiner, drags him back into the [strongpoint], runs back out, grabs our interpreter, drags him back in.” <br /> <br /> After the mini-firefight, Greiner and the interpreter were promptly medevaced, but Lacenski remained worried: “[Greiner’s] the one making sure I get aircraft. We’re very close. I even kidded him: ‘Hey, suck it up, I need you for the next mission!’ ”<br /> <br /> ELITE WARRIORS<br /> <br /> Lacenski’s heightened concern about Greiner’s availability confirms the vital partnering role of Air Force special operations personnel in joint missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other trouble spots.<br /> <br /> Over the last half-century, America’s military has increasingly emphasized special operations, a trend intensified especially over the past 15 years. Air Force contributions include combat controllers, pararescuemen (PJs), tactical air control party (TACP) members and special operations weather technicians (Other Air Force counterparts such as enlisted tactical air controllers and joint tactical air controllers support conventional forces.)<br /> <br /> Increasingly assigned to special operations necessitating close air support, combat controllers are taking higher casualties and receiving more valor awards.<br /> <br /> Overall, since Sept. 11, 2001, the combined Air Force special operations community has lost 19 killed in action and 132 wounded. And, according to military awards authority C. Douglas Sterner, airmen are receiving virtually all highlevel combat decorations for ground action.<br /> <br /> For example, all seven recent Air Force Crosses were presented for ground action, as were 53 of 70 Air Force Silver Stars. Moreover, combat controllers received five of the seven Air Force Crosses (one posthumously) and 29 of the 70 Silver Stars. All told, close air support airmen account for 44 Silver Stars.<br /> <br /> Says another source, retired Air Force Maj. Chris Larkin, a former combat controller and president of the Combat Control Association (CCA): “I believe the 24th Special Operation Wing (SOW) is the most decorated [Air Force] unit since Vietnam. Under the 24th SOW, 21st STS is the most decorated squadron.” Still, Larkin stresses: “[Awards have] nothing to do with the mission and everything to do with happenstance.<br /> <br /> ”Air Force Col.James L.‘JJ’ Johnson, commander of the 720th Special Tactics Group (STG, 21st STS’s immediate parent unit) adds another caveat. “We pride ourselves on being quiet professionals,” stresses Johnson, a VFW life member. “We’re not there for medals or recognition. We’re there to conduct missions that we’re trained for.”(Approximately 450 of the Air Force’s 1,100 special tactics airmen belong to the 720th STG.)<br /> <br /> Combat control mission preparation is crucial. Says current 21st STS commander Lt. Col. Stewart J. Parker: “We’re often bringing more specialized equipment [and] different kinds of communications gear … [We also have] different requirements for intelligence … We have to be very proactive.”<br /> <br /> PERILOUS MISSION<br /> <br /> For his part, Greiner was very proactive about rejoining Lacenski’s team for the next clearing operation, scheduled for Sept. 27, 2014. “I planned the op, so I didn’t want to hand [it] off to someone else,” Greiner told Air Force Times. Only at the last hour did a skeptical battalion surgeon clear Greiner to go.<br /> <br /> The one-day mission targeted a bazaar in the Kajaki district of northern Helmand. But Taliban insurgents, numbering close to 100, mounted a fierce and unrelenting counterattack as soon as the coalition troops, dispersed in three elements, ‘infil’d’(infiltrated) from MH-47 Chinook helicopters.<br /> <br /> “We were anticipating troops in contact,” recalled Lacenski. “But once the [close air support] aircraft show up [they] usually hide. Not only were they not hiding, they were actually shooting at our attack helicopters.” <br /> <br /> Lacenski’s element, stationed in a building strongpoint on the western side of the bazaar, included Greiner, Senior Airman Goodie J. Goodman, 11 other special operations troops and 50 Afghan commandos. Greiner immediately sensed the “white space (the area clear of enemy) had … collapsed.” These Taliban seemed ready, Goodman realized, to fight “until the last soul.”<br /> <br /> White space scarcely existed for Observation Post 1 (OP1), a low-slung building 985 yards to the east occupied by eight U.S. special operators, Senior Airman Dustin Temple and five Afghan commandos. Early on, OP1 received most insurgent fire. When an incoming round gravely wounded Army Sgt. 1st Class Andrew T. “Andy” Weathers, Temple climbed a ladder to the OP1 roof to retrieve him. Then, after simultaneously coordinating close air support, suppressing fire and a medevac helicopter, Temple helped carry Weathers 230 feet through a hail of sniper bullets to the waiting helo.<br /> <br /> The coalition forces (nine other men in a third element defended OP2, east of OP1) ended up battling virtually nonstop for 48 hours. Why not pull out?“We had disrupted a lot of [insurgents],” reasoned Lacenski. “We made a decision to stay … We were good as long as there was adequate air cover.” <br /> <br /> Altogether, the three combat controllers coordinated 80 airstrikes employing 28 combat helicopters and 20 planes.Many were “danger close,” meaning coalition troops were in tight proximity to intended targets. After one such run, recalled Temple, “One of our friendlies said, ‘Hey, are you OK? You’re taking fire all around.’ ” <br /> <br /> Close air support responsibilities continuously shifted. “We’d pass control back and forth,” said Temple. “[And when] we were both under heavy fire, we would split the [communication] net.” Each controller also protected other positions when necessary.<br /> <br /> As just one example, Greiner called in a bomb-laden pair of F-16s to obliterate a Taliban machine gun position firing on OP1. Ingenuity also played a part.To flush concealed insurgents, Goodman instructed a loud, low-flying multi-engine AC-130 gunship to move outside hearing range. When insurgents took the bait, he retrieved the AC-130 for a lethal strike.<br /> <br /> The fire and explosions never fully stopped. “It was definitely the most chaotic and hectic 48 hours of my life,” Lacenski said. ‘Exfil’ finally began after nightfall on Sept. 28. Even then, recalled Lacenski, the three exfil CH-47s “were taking fire the whole way in. Nothing but tracers shooting up at the helicopters … and the helicopters shooting right back.” <br /> <br /> Two days after the team returned to Bagram Air Base, it learned that Weathers had succumbed to his wounds.It was a grievous loss. Remarkably, however, no other American or Afghan commando was killed or seriously wounded.<br /> <br /> For those two days of valor, the Army awarded one Silver Star (for Weathers posthumously), one Bronze Star and three Army Commendation Medals for valor to its 7th SFG soldiers. The Air Force, meanwhile, awarded Silver Stars to Greiner and Goodman and the Air Force Cross to Temple.<br /> <br /> This marked just the second time in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that more than one battlefield airman had received such prestigious awards. Given the shape of the current global struggle against Islamist terrorists, however, and the demand for Air Force special operations personnel, it may well not be the last.<br /> <br /> E-MAIL DAVID SEARS, a Navy vet of Vietnam and VFW member in New Jersey, is a frequent contributor to VFW magazine<br />

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