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SrA Zachary J. Rhyner

Operation Enduring Freedom

April 6, 2008
Nuristan, Afghanistan


Awarded for actions during the Global War on Terror

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Senior Airman Zachary J. Rhyner, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy of the United States while serving with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, at Nuristan Province, Afghanistan on 6 April 2008.

On that date, while assigned as Special Tactics Combat Controller, Airman Rhyner executed a day rotary-wing infiltration with his Special Forces team, ODA 3336, to capture high-value insurgents in a village on the surrounding mountains.

While climbing near vertical terrain to reach their objective, the team was attacked in a well-coordinated and deadly ambush. Devastating sniper, machine gun, and rocket-propelled grenade fire poured down on the team from elevated and protected positions on all sides, immediately pinning down the assault force.

Without regard for his life, Airman Rhyner placed himself between the most immediate threats and provided suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle against enemy fire while fellow teammates were extracted from the line of fire.  Airman Rhyner bravely withstood the hail of enemy fire to control eight United States Air Force fighters and four United States Army attack helicopters.

Despite a gunshot wound to the left leg and being trapped on a 60-foot cliff under constant enemy fire, Airman Rhyner controlled more than 50 attack runs and repeatedly repelled the enemy with repeated danger close air strikes, several within 100 meters of his position. Twice, his actions prevented his element from being overrun during the intense 6 and a half hour battle.

Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Airman Rhyner reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

Action Date: 6-Apr-08

Service: Air Force

Company: 21st Special Tactics Squadron

Division: Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina


Additional Information about the The Battle of Shok Valley, also known as Operation Commando Wrath.

On 6 April 2008, a 130-man combined assault force, dubbed Commando Wrath, performed a day-time rotary-wing insertion down into a remote valley of the Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Commando Wrath was composed of three Special Forces teams with each team having a Combat Controller attached, and a company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion. Rhyner, just six months out of training and on his first deployment, was attached to the C2-element (command and control) of Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 (ODA 336), from the 3rd Special Forces Group. Their mission was to capture Haji Ghafour, a high-ranking commander of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) militant group. Shortly after landing the assault force was ambushed and pinned down and the assault force was split in two on either side of a river.

Rhyner and several Special Forces members were wounded throughout the course of the battle. Rhyner was shot twice in the chest and once in the leg, thankfully his protective vest stopped the two bullets to his chest from causing a mortal injury. Despite being wounded within the first fifteen minutes of the battle, Rhyner continued to direct close air support and airstrikes until the assault force was evacuated seven hours later. 50 of the airstrikes he called in were within 200m of friendly positions; the term "danger close" is applied when referring to airstrikes within 600m. He was credited with saving the entire 100-man team from being overrun twice. According to the Air Force Cross citation, during the battle Rhyner directed close air support and airstrikes totalling 4,570 cannon rounds, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs, and one 2,000-pound bomb. As a result of the same battle, ten U.S. Army soldiers, nine Special Forces and one Combat Cameraman received the Silver Star, the greatest number of Silver Stars awarded for a single battle since the Vietnam War.

Capt. Stewart Parker, the Command and Control Special Forces commander at Bagram Air Base during the battle, said of Rhyner: "Rhyner is out of training less than a year and is in one of the most difficult situations ... it is an absolute testament to his character and the training these guys take. It tells me we are doing something right." During a Fox News interview with Glenn Beck, Beck asked Rhyner, "there are only—what is it?—192 people who have ever received the Air Force Cross. ... How do you put that together in your head? I mean, you are in a very elite group." Rhyner simply replied with "Any other combat controller put in the same situation would have performed in the same, exact way. ... Credit that to the training we receive and the process that we go through to become a combat controller." Future Air Force Cross recipient, and fellow Combat Controller, Robert Gutierrez was also present at the Battle of Shok Valley with Rhyner, albeit with a different Special Forces team, and regarding Rhyner's actions he said reportedly, "If it wasn't for Zach, I wouldn't be here."

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