Valor Friday

| June 7, 2024 | 9 Comments

For a time during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many awards for combat valor were being awarded in secret. At one point it was nearly 20% of the service crosses and Silver Stars. This is done to protect the recipient and their family, most often while they’re deployed (or subject to likely subsequent and frequent deployment). With that requirement, it’s no wonder that special operations troops are usually the ones given these “secret” medals.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society says;

There are no classified or “secret” Medal of Honor awards.

Presentations of the Medal of Honor follow President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 Executive Order stating that “the presentation of a Medal of Honor … will always be made with formal and impressive ceremonial.” They are always presented publicly.

In addition, all citations for the Medal, describing to whom and why it is being awarded, are officially published in the General Orders of the associated service branch. These General Orders are freely available to the public and all service members.

I can think of at least one example that was kept secret. Hiroshi Miyamura (US Army) received the Medal of Honor for actions just before he was captured by the enemy in Korea. While held as a prisoner, the award was kept secret to prevent Miyamura from receiving harsher treatment from the Communists. Similarly, Leo Thorsness (USAF) was awarded the MoH, which was kept hidden while he too was a prisoner of the Communists, but this time in North Vietnam.

Many awards for actions during Vietnam War were similarly secret, because the United States was not officially in places like Laos and Cambodia. Richard Etchberger’s heroism was kept secret, even from his own family, despite his death in action, because he was in Laos. Initially awarded the AFC, he was upgraded to the MoH. Philip Conran is another Airman to have received the AFC (instead of the MoH I think he deserves) for his heroism because he took was in Laos.

In more recent times though, awards of the MoH have been very public spectacles, even for those currently serving. Thomas Payne is one such example of a currently serving special operator whose award was well publicized. While the MoH in the past few decades has, rightfully in my opinion, drawn appropriate pomp and circumstance during the awarding (done by the President himself), other, lesser valor awards have been kept secret (at least in the time immediately around the award). After a few years, these quiet professionals have their award citations published, and few ever hear their stories.

What is rare is to have that award citation be published with the name of the recipient redacted. In many years of research on this topic, we don’t do that in America. If it’s a secret, then the whole damn thing is a secret! Our allies in the Commonwealth are much better about publishing awards, and they frequently do so to anonymous recipients. Australia’s Star of Gallantry (second only to the Victoria Cross for combat bravery) has been awarded eight times, but only two of those men have been named. New Zealand’s Gallantry Star (their second-level combat valor award) has been awarded five times, with one undisclosed recipient. Their third-level awards (analogous to our Silver Star) have similarly been repeatedly awarded without naming the recipient.

This week, an American Airman, name unknown, had his Air Force Cross citation released to the media. It was only released when a news organization forced them to though FOIA request. The award had been made back in 2020, for actions in 2018 in Syria.

The Airman is known to be a Combat Controller with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron (24th STS). The 24th is one of the better known Air Force special operations squadrons. Among prior members are;

  • Chief Master Sergeant Ramón Colón-López (a PJ legend in the GWOT-era Air Force), the fourth Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • John Chapman, a Combat Controller and posthumous recipient of the MoH, the only Airman to have received the honor since Vietnam
  • Tim Wilkinson, a PJ who received the Air Force Cross during the Battle of Mogadishu (the Black Hawk Down incident)

With that kind of pedigree, it’s no wonder so many men of the squadron have received valor awards. Among those is our unnamed airman. Here’s the story from Air and Space Forces Magazine;

An Air Force combat controller was awarded the Air Force Cross—the second-highest decoration for valor in combat behind the Medal of Honor—for actions during a fierce battle in Syria in 2018. His identity, however, remains a well-kept secret.

The Airman, a member of the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the medal in September 2020, but the Air Force didn’t disclose it until it answered Washington Post reporter Kyle Rempfer’s Freedom of Information Act request seeking the citation and order. An Air Force spokeswoman confirmed the citation to Air & Space Forces Magazine and said the combat controller’s identity was redacted under a FOIA exemption covering personnel in overseas, sensitive, or routinely deployable units.

Rempfer wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, May 31 that his FOIA request was related to the Battle of Khasham, which took place Feb. 7-8, 2018, near Dewr Az Zewr, Syria, the time and place included in the Airman’s citation.

“On this date, [redacted] exposed himself to artillery, rocket, and mortar bombardment, and direct fire from main battle tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy automatic weapons during the hasty defense of a United States Special Operations Forces operating location,” the citation reads. “His actions prevented an isolated force of American and coalition personnel from being overrun by a professionally trained and technically proficient combined-arms enemy assault comprised of main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery tubes, and a battalion of infantry soldiers.”

At the time, U.S. officials said their troops faced an “unprovoked attack” by forces associated with the regime of leader Bashar al-Assad. U.S. forces have been in Syria since 2014 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, its defeat-ISIS mission, and were embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who oppose al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

U.S. troops watched for about a week as “pro-regime” forces built up a battalion-sized force complete with artillery, tanks, and mortars near their position, officials said. The forces fired up to 30 artillery and tank rounds on the SDF and U.S. position, prompting a response by U.S. aircraft, including F-22s and MQ-9s, as well as artillery on the ground.

Air Force combat controllers deploy with special operations units into combat or hostile environments and help direct aircraft and provide command and control. According to a subsequent New York Times report based on interviews and documents, USAF combat controllers helped direct B-52 bombers where to strike, helping stop an intense barrage of tank fire, artillery, and mortar rounds.

The Air Force Cross citation notes that the Airman showed “extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy.”

Despite being significantly outnumbered, U.S. forces suffered no casualties in the battle.

There have been conflicting subsequent reports as to whether members of Russian private military companies were part of the formation that attacked U.S. forces. Officials have said they maintained deconfliction lines with the Russian military before and during the battle.

Since the Global War on Terror began in 2001, the Air Force has only announced the awards of 11 Air Force Cross medals, the latest in 2017. The service has had only one Medal of Honor recipient in that time—Master. Sgt. John A. Chapman, also a combat controller in the 24th Special Tactics Squadron.

Category: Air Force, Air Force Cross, Syria, Valor

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Prior Service (Ret)

Awesome, though I have to dispute the claim that Syria (or any non-Israeli force in the region) could even charitably be described as a “professionally trained and technically proficient combined arms” force! Otherwise, kudos to the unnamed airman. Wish we could hear more.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Let the Stolen Valor phony ponies come out of the woodwork, “yeah, that was me, I was the one…..”

Seekrit squirrel…second only to “my records were destroyed in the fire…third place goes to “if I tell you what I did and where I was I’d have to kill you.”

My opinion, and study of War Heroes, is that War Heroes don’t set out to do War Hero stuff in order to be awarded a piece of War Hero Bling, but do so in order to do their job…which is to look after their Buddy…and their Buddy’s Buddy. A Salute to those that do exactly that.

Thanks, Mason.

MIRanger

They are the type of person that changes their MOS to 92G, and then asks for assignment to a post getting decommissioned, because they like the solitude.

Jimbo

I was at Udorn all of 1975 when they closed the base. Gets kind of lonely when all the planes leave. We had a popular seekrit squirel airline and they closed down too. These guys did all that they could for SEA including giving their lives and received no recognition. They are some truly heroic pilots, and unsung heroes. I do believe they have a plaque that recognizes them at their headquarters.

Wernt me and I can prove it.
Many thanks to the Airman in question though.
Reminds me of all the secret stuff that went on pre/during the
Viet of the Nam mess. Cambodia/Laos involvement goes way
back to the 40’s and there must be quite a few “unmentionables”.

A good read concerning that early southeast Asia mess is
“Tragic Mountains” by Jane Hamilton-Merritt.

Tnx Mason.

tom reynolds

How come the media doesn’t ask why we have troops in Syria after President Trump ordered their complete withdrawal,after finding out they were there? Who put them back there? This will be all moot and forgotten after the crazys and traitors running our government from the pentagon start WW111 with the Russians. No disrespect to the soldiers doing their jobs.

USAFRetired

Fighter pilots get all the glamour but the special ops guys are doing the do and really putting their ass on the line.

Before John Chapman’s AFC was upgraded to the MOH I believe a Navy SEAL also earned a MOH from Takhar Gar/Roberts Ridge and his name withheld for security reasons for a while. I may be wrong. As that was 20+ years ago.

I have the unclassified Citation for an Air Medal that was approved 14 months after I retired and 24 months after the event it was awarded for. It identifies me by name identifies my deployed organization and unit but simply states “from a classified location” as our departure point.

I had a Great-Uncle now deceased who served in WWII and was awarded a Silver Star at Cape Gloucester. I have scanned copies of both the citation and the “Classified Citation” Both typed on bond paper. It says “classified” citation in the subject and reads almost exactly the same. I’m searching for it on my computer as we speak. I only have a copy, but cherish it not just because of our familial relationship, but because it has the signatures of A. A Vandegriff on the citations and signature of Lewis B. Puller on the letter of transmittal that accompanied them. The “classified” citation doesn’t have any classification on top or bottom front or back nor any portion markings.

I need to clean up my computer and do a better job archiving.