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Click here for Crawford's Air Force Cross citation (partially redacted at the Air Force's request).

April 6, 2012—Capt. Barry F. Crawford Jr., was caught in the crossfire. He waved his arms toward the HH-60 Pave Hawk that hovered above as he ignored the bullets pelting the ground at his feet, kicking up dirt and rocks. His headset muted the sound as a round flew just past his ear, though he definitely felt the antenna of one of his radios slap the back of his neck hard after the bullet struck it. The special tactics officer thought he had been shot. He felt for blood, but there was none. He carried on.

The landing zone was hot and it was tiny. More than a hundred enemy fighters were hidden in the jagged mountainside surrounding the remote Afghan village in Laghman Province, in eastern Afghanistan. The insurgents had been accurately firing machine guns and sniper rifles down at the US and Afghan commandos for hours. Two Afghan soldiers were dead and three more were severely wounded. Crawford knew the casualties didn’t have long to live, but the wind and rain combined with the fortress-like terrain was making it difficult for the medevac helicopter to land. Without regard for his own life, he remained exposed to heavy fire and guided the pilots onto the landing zone.

For Crawford's actions that day, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz will award him the Air Force Cross—the second highest honor for valor in combat, after only the Medal of Honor—at a Pentagon ceremony April 12. Crawford will become the fifth Air Force special operator to receive the service’s highest honor since Sept. 11, 2001, and only the third living recipient to receive the award in that time. Only seven other airmen have earned the honor since 1975.

Multiple mission participants “painted a consistent and compelling picture of Captain Crawford’s technical expertise and exceptional courage under fire during the day-long battle with the enemy,” said Lt. Col. Parks Hughes, commander of the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, Crawford’s home unit at the time. “They credited his decisive actions with enabling the US ground force and their Afghan partners to survive and escape an extremely dire situation.”

No one expected the massive assault that took place on May 4, 2010. Crawford was assigned to Army Special Forces Operational Det. Alpha, which was partnered with a group of Afghan infantry trained to mirror US Army Rangers. The operation was part of a larger scale plan to work with International Security Assistance Forces in a completely denied area East of Kabul that had gone a long time without coalition presence.

The US forces were acting as mentors. The idea was to put an Afghan face on the operation, which was intended only to be a regional engagement effort. The soldiers wanted to sweep the area and talk to the village elders. The area was known to be sympathetic to the Taliban, but the assault force, which included about 100 US and Afghan personnel, only expected resistance from about 10 fighters. Unbeknownst to the troops on the ground, though, the mission had been compromised and insurgents were holed up in tunnels and caves in the mountains waiting for them.

It turns out the assault force was ambushed by a highly capable enemy force roughly 10 times what they had anticipated.

As the troops entered the village, they quickly realized the normal signs of life were eerily absent. The villagers should have been getting up for their first prayer. Women, children, and men should have been moving around. “There was none of that, so our 'spidey senses' picked up and we knew something wasn’t right,” Crawford told Air Force Magazine in an interview from Maryland where he is now assigned to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Squadron in Baltimore.

Army AH-64 Apaches, Air Force F-16s, an AC-130 gunship, and a manned ISR platform circled overhead passing information to Crawford. Initially, aircrews could make out about 50 insurgents moving in the mountains, but that they later saw that number more than doubled. After intercepting an enemy communication, it was clear the insurgents were preparing to attack once the sun came up.

Within the first 30 minutes the assault force found the first cache of weapons--grenades, RPGs, anti-tank mines, and some recoilless rifles with ammunition. The houses were empty, but were set up like defensive fighting positions with firing ports built up in the corners. There was no doubt they had walked in to a Taliban stronghold, said Crawford.

Around 5 a.m., an element just north of the village started taking fire. Immediately after, bullets began raining down inside the village. “One of my teammates referred to it as getting shot at like fish in a barrel,” said Crawford. “Once the enemy started firing on us, it didn’t stop for 10-plus hours. . . . Wherever we moved everyone was constantly under fire. It was like running the gauntlet, like it was straight out of a movie.”

Loaded down with 50-plus pounds of gear, Crawford and his team ran down the street as rounds struck the ground near their feet and the walls exploded alongside them.

“We were certainly lucky that day. A lot of guys had a lot of close calls,” he said.

Others weren’t so lucky. The first casualty suffered a gunshot wound to the face, so one of the medics ran across the open terrain to provide medical treatment.

“Then it was like dominos. The first guy was wounded, we took another guy, he was killed in action. A few minutes after that we took another wounded,” said Crawford. In less than 45 minutes they suffered five casualties—two killed in action and three more severely wounded. All were Afghans.

Throughout the fighting, Crawford remained in constant communication with the Apaches, which were strafing the mountainside with 33 mm rounds and rockets. One of the elements spotted a large boulder, roughly 250 feet in diameter, that was serving as shelter for a couple of fighting positions. Crawford called on the F-15E Strike Eagles, which had replaced the F-16s, to lay down 500-pound and 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

The shooting stopped, but only for about 15 minutes, said Crawford. That’s when they realized the insurgents were maneuvering through a tunnel system dug high up in the mountains.

A few hours in to the fight a heavy layer of clouds covered the mountaintops and rain started pouring down, forcing Crawford to rely heavily on the Apaches. Two-thirds of the weapons employed during the battle were danger close, he said. “The professionalism of the Apache’s [crews] was incredible,” said Crawford. “They were actually waking people up to come out and putting ad hoc flights together to support us. If I said I need weapons here, they didn’t question it...because they knew too many lives were on the line.”

The casualties still needed to be airlifted out, but the village was too hot with ground fire, so Crawford held them off. The Pave Hawks went to get gas and when they came back, he tried to guide them through what he called “the worst possible conditions.”

The long battle was starting to take its toll on the men. They had been dodging bullets all day and they were running out of ammo. The Afghans knew their buddies were hurt and they knew some had died. They also saw the first failed attempt to land the medevac. Some of the teammates were pinned down. It was windy. It was rainy. And, they were out of markings for the landing zone.

“I knew it was a dire situation,” said Crawford. He also knew he had one shot left to get the wounded out, so he came up with a battle plan to unleash hell on the mountainside.

“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 helicopter to the landing zone,” reads his Air Force Cross citation. “Once the pilot had eyes on his position, Captain Crawford remained exposed, despite having one of his radio antennas shot off mere inches from his face, while he vectored in the aircraft to his position.

“Captain Crawford then bounded across open terrain, engaged enemy positions with his assault rifle and called in AH-64 strafe attacks to defeat the ambush allowing the aid-and-litter teams to move toward the casualties,” states the citation.

The helicopters successfully evacuated four of the five casualties despite taking at least 10 direct hits, but then Crawford had to call them off due to the overwhelming fire. There was one casualty still on the ground, and he was in bad shape. As the senior medic dragged him to the landing zone, he sustained another wound. Without rescue, the Afghan would only have a few minutes to live, and the HH-60s were out of gas.

Crawford began communicating with a conventional Army Blackhawk overhead. “I said, ‘I’m not going to lie, it’s really nasty down here, but we still have a commando on the ground. He just got shot again en route to the HLZ and the senior medic is laying on top of him providing him with medical treatment and trying to block him from getting hit again,’” said Crawford. The Blackhawk came in and successfully evacuated the last wounded commando without taking any direct hits.

The ground force commander--a US Army captain--called headquarters and requested a quick reaction force be launched for support. As the team landed a couple kilometers west of the village, they too immediately came under fire, so they stayed in place to secure the final landing zone. Crawford split the air assets to provide them some cover. At this point, there were more than 160 US and Afghan personnel on the ground in multiple elements.

Crawford continued engaging with the Apaches, which were unleashing gun, rocket, and Hellfire attacks on the mountainside, as the friendly assault force began the one and a quarter mile trek over steep terrain out of the village. As they were leaving a small pickup truck carrying about three insurgents came in firing RPGs. “We engaged the truck and neutralized the threat,” said Crawford.

The US troops and Afghan soldiers bounded through streets and alleyways trying to clear the way out, but the insurgents kept launching ambushes. “We knew the air was doing an incredible job because at one point the enemy said they were dying like vegetables. We kind of laughed about it after the fact because we don’t even know what that means, but they knew we were moving and we knew they were going to make one last ditch effort to mass us and move in to the village. We had to get out of there,” said Crawford.

As they moved south, another small pickup truck rolled in firing on the troops. Crawford called in a hellfire attack. After the explosion, the truck’s fender blew over the small ravine where they were fighting and landed on the infill HLZ. “It was up close and personal,” he said.

As they left the village, Crawford’s element was ambushed from multiple fighting positions. The enemy was less than 500 feet away, firing from caves, houses, and a ravine that had been dubbed the “green zone” because the vegetation made it almost impossible to see down in there. The men were pinned down in the open, so Crawford relocated the air assets.

He then “moved alone across the open terrain in the kill zone to locate and engage enemy positions with his assault rifle while directing AH-64 30 mm strafe attacks,” according to the citation.

After roughly 10 hours of constant battle, coalition forces were running out of ammunition. The men started handing around magazines as they fought back against the insurgents.

Crawford integrated AH-64s and F-15s in a coordinated air-to-ground attack plan that included strafing runs, Hellfire missiles, 500 and 2,000-pound bombs allowing the men to successfully evacuate the village without sustaining any more casualties.

As they finally reached the landing zone, Crawford kept some air assets over the village to confuse the enemy, which was plotting its fourth major ambush of the day, according to more intercepted radio calls.

“Throughout the course of the 10-hour firefight, Captain Crawford braved effective 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,” reads his citation.

Now with the Maryland Air National Guard, Crawford is waiting on a slot for pilot training. He hopes to fly A-10s for the Guard.