Air Force Cross recipient retires due to combat wounds
By 1st Lt. Katrina Cheesman, 24th Special Operations Wing
/ Published August 21, 2015
Pope Army Airfield, N.C. -- After 11 years, six deployments, three Purple Hearts and one Air Force Cross, Tech. Sgt. Zachary J. Rhyner, Special Tactics combat controller, medically retired due to injuries sustained in battle, Aug. 21, 2015.
“Your retirement is well deserved, but your selfless contributions will be sorely missed,” Chief Master Sgt. James A. Cody, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, wrote to Rhyner in a letter of appreciation. “On behalf of all Airmen, thank you for your faithful and devoted service to our nation.”
Rhyner ended his years as an active duty Special Tactics Airman in a small ceremony surrounded by friends and families, reflecting the humility and sense of duty that has defined Rhyner throughout his career.
"Zac is a truly amazing combat controller,” Col. Matthew Wolfe Davidson, 24th Special Operations Wing commander, said. “He exemplifies a very rare blend of special operators with exceptional technical and tactical skills, but is also blessed with an uncommon sense of humility and duty to his team mates and his country. Zac Rhyner is one of the finest Special Tactics operators to have served in our ranks."
Rhyner received the Air Force Cross, the highest service medal for extraordinary heroism during his first deployment as a combat controller. He was the third Airman to receive the medal since 2001, and the first Airman to receive it while living.
On that day on April 6, 2008, despite a gunshot wound to the left leg and being trapped on a 60-foot cliff under constant enemy fire, Rhyner controlled more than 50 attack runs of overhead aircraft and repeatedly repelled the enemy with multiple danger close air strikes, several within 100 meters of his position.
Twice, his control of the overhead aircraft prevented his element from being overrun during the intense six-and-a-half hour battle. He and his U.S. Army Special Forces team were credited with eliminating more than 200 insurgents during that first six-month deployment.
Despite being a recipient of the military’s second-highest medal for valor, right below the Medal of Honor, Rhyner continued to sacrifice for his country with a humility that belied his level of skill and honoraria.
When he deployed to a hotly contested forward operating base in Afghanistan and was injured during a battle with insurgents, a high-ranking Air Force leader called Rhyner’s commander to ask why they had sent one of the only living Air Force Cross recipients to the most dangerous part of the world.
“We send our best where we need them the most, and Zac is our best,” Davidson said, recalling his response.
Rhyner went on to complete multiple deployments in support or Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM, integrating air power in the special operations battlespace. When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, Rhyner participated in Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE as a part of the humanitarian effort. In the aftermath of the disaster, he and his team ran the Port-Au-Prince International Airport for three weeks, ensuring vital humanitarian aid was delivered. He contributed to the safe control of 4,180 takeoffs and landings, as well as the airdrop of 69,000 pounds of humanitarian aid to the people of Haiti.
During his last deployment, Rhyner suffered a gunshot wound to the right hip in March 2013. The bullet shattered his femur and severed a nerve, resulting in permanent injury below the knee. He was told there was a possibility that he would not be able to walk again.
But that injury didn’t stop Rhyner from continuing to serve in whatever capacity he could. He committed himself to more than two years of tireless rehabilitation to regain a great range of mobility, while teaching as an instructor for Special Tactics Airmen in one of the most intense training environments in the military.
As his career of courage and sacrifice as a Special Tactics combat controller came to a close, Rhyner only had gratitude to share for the years serving his country alongside his special operations team mates.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Rhyner said during his retirement ceremony, addressing his fellow teammates. “I am just happy I had the brothers to look out for me.”