The first airman since the Vietnam War could soon receive the military’s highest honor
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff September 1 at 2:46 PM
The Air Force is the only service where no one has yet received the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that may soon change.
Of the seven airmen since 9/11 who have received the Air Force Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor in the Air Force, one will be recommended by the Air Force Special Operations Command for the Medal of Honor, according to a Monday report in the Air Force Times.
The potential award comes after Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James ordered a review of valor awards for special operations Airmen, which include Pararescue jumpers and forward air controllers. According to the Air Force Times report, Air Force Special Operations Command found “new information” about one of the Air Force Cross recipients.
So which Airmen will receive the nation’s highest valor award? Here is a list and a summary of their actions.
Tech. Sgt John Chapman (posthumous award)
Known either as the the battle of Robert’s Ridge or the battle of Takur Ghar, the short brutal hill fight came early in the Afghan war and resulted in another airman besides Chapman receiving the Air Force Cross—Sr. airman Jason Cunningham.
In the early hours of March 4 2002, two SEAL teams attempted to land on the peak of Mt. Takur Ghar in order to establish an observation post. The first helicopter— a MH-47 —received intense small arms fire and suffered a direct hit by a rocket propelled grenade that destroyed everything but the bird’s ability to fly. When the helicopter was hit, a Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Neil C. Roberts fell out of the back of the aircraft. He was later killed.
The second helicopter with the second SEAL team, now alone, attempted to land and rescue Roberts. It was then, as the second SEAL team spilled out of the ramp attempting to find their lost comrade, that Chapman was mortally wounded. The team came under intense fire as the helicopter landed and, according to Chapman’s Air Force Cross citation, Chapman engaged and killed two enemy personnel, advancing towards an enemy machine gun nest before the team came under fire from three directions where he suffered multiple gunshot wounds.
Senior Airman Jason Cunningham (posthumous award)
Cunningham also fought and died during the battle of Robert’s Ridge as a part of the quick reaction force sent to recover Roberts. His aircraft, another MH-47, received an RPG hit, causing it to lose power and crash atop Takur Ghar. Cunningham began treating casualties in the hastily established defense around the crash, according to his citation.
Using the burning fuselage as cover he moved his patients to safety and continued to treat them. As the battle dragged on he continuously repositioned those were wounded, even in the face of withering fire. Eventually he was mortally wounded. In spite of his wounds however, he continued to direct patient care. For Cunningham’s efforts he was credited for rendering aid to 10 gravely injured service members.
Capt. Barry Crawford Jr.
In May 2010 in the mountains of Lagham Province in Afghanistan, a team of Afghan Commandoes, Army Special Forces and an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller team came under withering fire after finding a weapons cache.
According to a report released by his command, Crawford called in multiple airstrikes from both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in order to keep the enemy at bay and allow his team to maneuver out of the “kill zone.” His actions allowed for the safe medical evacuation of three wounded Afghan soldiers and two Afghans that had already been killed in the fighting.
“Capt. Crawford repeatedly and conspicuously disregarded his own safety to assist his United States and Afghan teammates,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Norton Schwartz at Crawford’s award ceremony in 2012. “It is not hard to be utterly impressed by his bravery and inspired by his selflessness.”
Tech. Sgt Robert Gutierrez Jr.
It was Oct 5, 2009 in Herat Province Afghanistan and Gutierrez was bleeding out through a hole in his back. As a joint terminal attack controller for an Army Special Forces team, Gutierrez’s job was to talk to aircraft overhead, according to an Air Force Times article that detailed his heroism.
With pressure building around his lungs, he couldn’t talk. The enemy was closing in and the fighting was intense. It was only after one of the Special Forces’ medics decompressed his chest cavity with a syringe that Gutierrez was finally able to talk to a flight of A-10 warthogs that banked and rolled in with their 30mm cannons. The airstrike was within 10 yards of the Americans’ positions. And after three passes the enemy stopped shooting. His actions were credited with saving the lives of a dozens soldiers.
Senior Airman Dustin Temple
In a 48-hour firefight in Helmand province, Afghanistan in 2014, Temple was responsible for calling in 75 “danger-close” airstrikes. The bombs dropped on the enemy were so close to U.S. and Afghan forces that special authorization was required to drop them.
Temple was one of three airman assigned to joint Army Special Forces and Afghan Commando team tasked with reclaiming a part of the Helmand River Valley. When the fighting began an intercepted Taliban radio transmission said to “Take the Americans alive,” according to a report in the Air Force Times.
The two other airmen in the battle both received Silver Stars for their actions.
Tech. Sgt Zachary J. Rhyner
In April 2008, Rhyner found himself in the Shok Valley in Afghanistan, outnumbered and outgunned. As a combat controller he was attached to an additional 40 U.S. troops and around 100 Afghan Commandoes, according to an Air Force Times article. Their objective in the valley was to disrupt the operations of a group of fighters known as Hezeb Islamic Al Gulbadin.
It wasn’t soon after they landed when they found themselves in a 360 degree ambush. As the enemy closed in, Rhyner directed airstrikes from a group of F-15s above. For three hours Rhyner called in airstrikes. He was shot three times. One round grazed his leg while the other two impacted his body armor. Even after the last of the troops had been evacuated from the valley floor, Rhyner was hanging out the back a helicopter calling in one last airstrike. When all was said and done the six and half hour battle had involved the expenditure of more than a dozen 500-pound bombs and 4,570 cannon rounds.
Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz
A pararescueman attached to an Army Special Forces team, Ruiz was involved in a close quarters engagement in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in December 2013. According to an Air Force Times article, Ruiz was moving through a series of compounds when his team came under heavy fire.
Two soldiers were wounded by gunfire and grenades. Without hesitation Ruiz ran to the wounded and began returning fire. He defended his wounded comrades until reinforcements arrived and he could drag them to safety and effectively render aid. Aside from his Air Force Cross Ruiz received a Bronze Star for valor during a 13-hour battle earlier in 2013.