FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — 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.
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.