Pope airman honored for bravery in battle

Posted March 10, 2009

— An airman from Pope Air Force Base received the Air Force Cross Tuesday. Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner got the service's second-highest honor for heroism for his role in a punishing battle in the remote mountains of Afghanistan.

The Air Force Cross is equivalent to the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross awarded to sailors and Marines.

Airman awarded Air Force Cross Airman awarded Air Force Cross

Rhyner, 22, and an Army Special Forces team were climbing to a village when they were ambushed on a steep mountainside in Afghanistan on April 6. Machine gun rounds smashed into rocks nearby and showered him with debris, and a bullet gorged a chunk of his thigh.

Rhyner described the battle with characteristic understatement. "There was a lot of stuff going on. It was busy," he said.

Rhyner was the combat controller. “Our job is to coordinate with aircraft to get bombs and targets in support of ground scheming maneuvers," he said.

He was trapped on a 60-foot cliff and wounded in the leg. Rhyner radioed Air Force fighters and Army helicopters to tell them where to fire on the village. Machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down.

“You literally couldn't see 2 inches in front of your face from the debris. It sent boulders showering down around us," Rhyner recalled.

The firefight dragged on for six-and-a-half hours.

Rhyner alone called in more than 150 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs, nine Hellfire missiles. He eventually called in a 2,000-pound bomb, knowing the blast could easily kill him.

"I think that was the moment when the insurgents we were fighting called time-out," Rhyner said.

It allowed the team to escape to the valley floor and into rescue helicopters.

Commanders said his ability to stay calm during the fight last April and call in accurate air strikes likely made the difference between victory and defeat. More than half of the Americans involved in the firefight were injured, but none of them died. More than 150 Afghan insurgents were killed.

Rhyner was awarded both the Air Force Cross and the Purple Heart on Tuesday.

“I think the events that took place on that fateful day last year are almost impossible to imagine," General Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff said in presenting the honors to Rhyner.


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  • jhouse3 Mar 11, 2009

    trust me..our soldiers to not make big bucks. we spend $$ on education too but the teachers dont see any of it. Being recognized for bravery in the line of fire is not 'coddling' is simply recognizing a heroic feat. He does not get a bonus, he does not get a raise...its simple honest recognition.

    Unfortunately our society does not appreciate those who serve, teach or protect our culture. Soldiers, teachers, police/fire and nurses need to be on a pedestal. Instead we idolize drug popping sport 'heroes' and vapid hollywood idiots whos biggest contribution to our society is cool catch phrases and fodder for pulp ficton rags detailing who's house cost more and who's wife is schlopping around.

  • ignc73 Mar 11, 2009

    Why do we spend trillions of dollars to pay these people, only to give them medals for doing the job they signed up for and that we pay them for? Crazy. We shouldn't have to coddle these kids so much.

  • JuanGrande v3.0 Mar 11, 2009

    Wa4mjf, airman is an accepted term to refer to enlisted AF personnel, just like sailor for Navy, soldier for Army, etc. Airman just also happens to be a rank.

    Panther is just another "wannabe" who learned his military information from the Military Channel and Wikipedia.

    This Staff Sergeant is a true hero and that should never be diminished.

  • Plum Tuckered Mar 11, 2009

    "I wonder if his small team of survivors would support his receiving this recognition? Seems to be some debate here..."

    Check out the story in detail -- ALL 40 souls on his US Special Forces team survived, and only 2 of his accompanying 100 Afgan commando buddies died, compared with 100+ Taliban insurgents dead.

    It was hell and he was wounded. "His job" or not, I'd say he deserves it.

    By the way, "Panther", this is only the third time the Air Force Cross has been awarded in Afghanistan, and the previous two times were awarded posthumously. They're not giving these crosses away.

  • Trivr Mar 10, 2009

    I wonder if his small team of survivors would support his receiving this recognition? Seems to be some debate here...

  • cjimmyray414 Mar 10, 2009

    I want to Thank all the Men and Women for what they are doing to protect me and my love ones for what they are doing for us.

  • jhouse3 Mar 10, 2009

    THANK YOU SOLDIER! well done..i'd be proud to shake you hand!

    from the old 3636 ' That others may live'

  • jhouse3 Mar 10, 2009

    Panther you need to stfu and stay in your lane. you OBVIOUSLY know nothing about this young man's job. IF you have served and IF you have seen combat and IF you too have worked with small units then MAYBE we take your .02 but im willing to bet its a FAIL to at least one of those IF's.

    i'd be proud to shake his hand and say THANK YOU SOLDIER!

  • haggis basher Mar 10, 2009

    He seems to deserve it from the accounts I've read......

  • Glock Ranger Mar 10, 2009

    Y'all are a tough audience. As opposed to being a soldier, sailor or a Marine, he is an airman. Just so happens he is an NCO grade airman. More than that, he vounteered to put his derriere on the line and nearly got it blown off! Besides, didn't sound like he was asking for the recognition.

    Not to belittle any sacrifices you may have made, Panther, by any means. I just wonder if you ever found yourself bleeding on a hillside, surrounded by bad guys who want to kill you, calling down hellfire and brimstone on you and your buddies?

    I didn't. I didn't even get a Purple Heart when I busted my face on the drill pad at Lackland.

    As far as I'm concerned, anybody who has "done their job" under extreme circumstances and didn't cut and run, deserves a medal. Most don't get any recognition, not even a "Thank You."

    From way down deep in a grateful heart for everyone who has: Thank you. God bless you.