'Battle of survival:' Special tactics officer awarded Air Force Cross

  • Published
  • By Capt. Kristen D. Duncan
  • Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs
In a harrowing 10-hour battle amidst more than 100 insurgents, a special tactics officer kept the enemy at bay with a little help from above.

Capt. Barry F. Crawford Jr. was awarded the Air Force Cross during a Pentagon ceremony April 12 for his heroic actions controlling the air space and calling in airstrikes during the 2010 battle in Afghanistan, which allowed his special operations team to get out of the kill zone and ultimately saved the lives of his American comrades.

While assigned to the 23rd Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, Crawford was the Joint Terminal Attack Controller for an Army special forces and Afghan commando team.

Crawford called in multiple fixed and rotary wing air assets, allowing for the safe return of all U.S. forces, the evacuation of two Afghan commandos killed in action, and the rescue of three other wounded Afghan commandos.

"Captain Crawford repeatedly and conspicuously disregarded his own safety to assist his United States and Afghan teammates," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz shortly before presenting the captain the Air Force Cross during the ceremony. "It is not hard to be utterly impressed by his bravery and inspired by his selflessness."

According to his citation, "Crawford braved effective enemy fire and consciously placed himself at grave risk on four occasions while controlling over 33 aircraft and more than 40 airstrikes on a well-trained and well-prepared enemy force. His selfless actions and expert airpower employment neutralized a numerically superior enemy force and enabled friendly elements to exfiltrate the area without massive casualties."

The team of approximately 100 personnel flew into the steep mountains of Laghman Province early May 4, 2010. As soon as they were on the ground, they heard enemy chatter on the radios. Then, within 30 minutes, they found a substantial weapons cache inside the village. The enemy force was apparently dug in to defensive positions and just waiting for the sun to rise before beginning their assault on the Coalition Force.

"As soon as the sun came up, we started taking extremely heavy enemy fire," Crawford said in an interview. "Our placement in the middle of the village, and the enemy's superior fighting positions, required us to 'run the gauntlet' of enemy fire no matter where we were in the valley."

Enemy fighters were expertly using sniper and medium machine-gun fire to target the friendly force as insurgents were closing in on their location from all sides. As the force closed in, a high-volume of machine-gun and sniper fire initially wounded five commandos.

"Recognizing that the wounded Afghan soldiers would die without evacuation to definitive care, Captain Crawford took decisive action and ran out into the open in an effort to guide the [medical evacuation] helicopter to the landing zone," according to the citation. "Once the pilot had eyes on his position, Crawford remained exposed, despite having one of his radio antennas shot off mere inches from his face.

"Acting without hesitation, Crawford then bounded across open terrain, engaging enemy positions with his assault rifle and called in AH-64 strafe attacks to defeat the ambush."

When the weather cleared, the team moved along the steep terrain. To allow his team to freely move in the open and prevent further casualties, Crawford coordinated the delivery of danger-close AH-64 Apache Hellfire missiles, and 500- and 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs from F-15E Strike Eagles.

"Everyone there was on task and wanted to crush the enemy," Crawford said. "My teammates went above and beyond, and everyone's efforts really reenergized the entire assault force's morale."

As the U.S. and Afghan commandos left the burned-out village, Crawford's team once again came under attack. Stuck in an open, narrow valley with 300- to 500-foot sheer mountain cliffs around them, the team was forced to hold their position in poor weather conditions.

With the enemy merely 150 meters away, Crawford repeatedly called for danger-close 30 mm strafing, and rocket attacks from AH-64 Apaches overhead. To mark the enemy locations, Crawford ran into the open to engage the enemy while continuing to direct Apache airstrikes.

"The Apaches were our lifeline," Crawford said. "They were consistently engaging. It was a battle of survival for us, and they unleashed hell on the enemy."

The original mission was to collect intelligence from a remote village sympathetic to the Taliban. However, the village had been burned prior to their arrival. Their mission quickly turned into a battle for survival, which was remarkably successful. The SOF team suffered two Afghan Commando casualties, but more than 80 insurgents were killed during the engagement, including three high-ranking enemy commanders.

Crawford is currently assigned to the 104th Fighter Squadron in the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Fighter Wing. He will soon attend pilot training to fly the A-10 Thunderbolt II.

The Air Force Cross is the service's highest medal, and second only to the Medal of Honor.

The last Air Force Cross was awarded to an Air Force combat controller, Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr., on Oct. 27, 2011 at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Previously another Air Force combat controller, Staff Sgt. Zachary J. Rhyner, was presented the medal on March 10, 2009, at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.