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KIAMARCH 27, 1975 - MARCH 4, 2002HOME OF RECORD: CAMARILLO, CALIFORNIA
In March 2002, a combined task force began Operation ANACONDA to trap and destroy Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shahi Kot valley in eastern Afghanistan. During this campaign, a small United States force fought a 17-hour battle against enemy forces on the mountaintop of Takur Ghar, which came to be known as Roberts Ridge. At about 0100 local, on March 4, Razor 3, a Army MH-47E helicopter tried to insert a special operations team on top of an enemy stronghold. While landing, it was hit by RPG rockets and gunfire, causing Navy SEAL Neil Roberts to fall from the helicopter. With the MH-47E heavily damaged, the aircrew made an emergency landing about three miles away. Combat Controller Technical Sergeant. John Chapman, a member of the team, began coordinating close air support and a rescue effort to retrieve Roberts. Another helicopter, Razor 4, picked up the team and took them back to rescue Roberts on the 10,000-foot mountaintop.
Airman Cunningham was the primary Air Force Combat Search and Rescue medic assigned to a Quick Reaction Force tasked to recover two American servicemen evading capture in austere terrain occupied by massed Al Qaida and Taliban forces.
Shortly before landing, his MH-47E helicopter received accurate rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire, severely disabling the aircraft and causing it to crash land. The assault force formed a hasty defense and immediately suffered three fatalities and five critical casualties.
Despite effective enemy fire, and at great risk to his own life, Airman Cunningham remained in the burning fuselage of the aircraft in order to treat the wounded. As he moved his patients to a more secure location, mortar rounds began to impact within fifty feet of his position. Disregarding this extreme danger, he continued the movement and exposed himself to enemy fire on seven separate occasions. When the second casualty collection point was also compromised, in a display of uncommon valor and gallantry, Airman Cunningham braved an intense small arms and rocket-propelled grenade attack while repositioning the critically wounded to a third collection point.Even after he was mortally wounded and quickly deteriorating, he continued to direct patient movement and transferred care to another medic. In the end, his distinct efforts led to the successful delivery of ten gravely wounded Americans to life-saving medical treatment.
His actions to save others made himself vulnerable, however, and he was mortally wounded while carrying an injured helicopter crewman. Cunningham was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross for his selfless acts.
In terms of Cunningham's background, he was born in Dallas, Texas, and exhibited the desire to help others at an early age. Growing up in Gallup, New Mexico, he pursued lifeguard training with the American Red Cross and eventually served as his high school's lifeguard. His early physical training resulted in two collegiate silver medals in Tae Kwan Do.
Enlisting in the Navy in 1994, he served as an Aviation Boatswains Mate at NAS Naples, Italy. While assigned to NAS Naples, he served as a volunteer fireman, earning the Navy Commendation Medal for his actions in extinguishing a potentially disastrous fire. His integrity and devotion to duty led to his early selection to E-4 before he separated from the Navy in 1998.
Airman Cunningham left the Navy with one clear goal--to become an Air Force pararescueman. Overcoming many obstacles, he enlisted in the Air Force in 1999 and earned the coveted maroon beret and pararescueman flash in June 2001. Cunningham's first and only assignment was to the 38th Rescue Squadron.
In addition to the Air Force Cross, Airman Cunningham's awards include the Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, U.S. Navy Achievement Medal (with 1 Device), U.S. Navy Good Conduct Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Force Expeditionary Medal, Armed Forces Service Medal, and Humanitarian Service Medal.