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TSgt. Daniel Keller, a combat controller in the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, will receive the Air Force Cross on Sept. 13, 2019, for his actions on a battlefield in Afghanistan. Air National Guard photo by MSgt. Vicky Spesard.

TSgt. Daniel Keller, a combat controller in the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, will receive the Air Force Cross from Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Sept. 13, according to a state ANG spokesman. The Air Force Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor among USAF military decorations.

Keller is earning the decoration for his actions on Aug. 16, 2017, when he was a joint terminal attack controller in Afghanistan. Then a staff sergeant, Keller was part of a mission in Nangarhar province to clear the area of some 350 Islamic State group fighters. After 15 hours of sustained battle, the assault force was hit by an improvised explosive device that detonated inside a house, instantly killing four troops and wounding 31 others. Only 10 feet from the blast, Keller suffered a traumatic brain injury, but nonetheless orchestrated airstrikes on the opposing force while simultaneously repelling them with his M4 rifle. The enemy was less than 150 meters away at the time.

He then helped 13 wounded troops reach a landing zone for medical evacuation, all the while taking enemy fire. When the medevac helicopters couldn’t find the landing zone, Keller ran into the open to flag them down, “exposing himself to enemy fire in order to marshal in both aircraft and aid in loading casualties,” according to the citation.

After the wounded were removed and as remaining US forces were leaving the area, Keller volunteered to make the 2.5-kilometer walk back to a combat outpost, escorting other wounded troops. Along the way, he fought off a three-sided enemy attack by returning fire and passing information to another JTAC. When he finally reached the outpost, Keller was evacuated for medical treatment.

Keller’s “personal courage, quick actions, and tactical expertise while under fire, directly contributed to the survival of 130 members of his assault force, including 31 wounded in action, and resulted in an estimated 50 enemy killed in action,” according to the citation, which noted his “gallantry and devotion to duty.”

Goldfein and Air National Guard chief Lt. Gen. Scott Rice on Sept. 11 decided to upgrade Keller from the Silver Star, according to a Kentucky ANG spokesman.

SSgt. Pete Dinich, an Active-Duty pararescueman assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing, was decorated with the Silver Star for the same operation on Sept. 6.

This story has been updated to reflect that TSgt. Keller served as a joint terminal attack controller in Afghanistan.