Story and photos by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy
24th Special Operations Wing
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla., April 20, 2017–For the first time in history, two Air Force Crosses were simultaneously presented to airmen April 20 at Hurlburt Field as a result of a service-wide review of medals.
Two airmen, whose heroics were separated by 11 years and 100 miles in the same war zone solidified a special tactics legacy that has seen a great deal of action since Sept. 11.
“You represent the finest traits America can ask of its warriors as you fight alongside joint and coalition teammates in crises of the highest consequence,” said Gen. David L. Goldfein, 21st Chief of Staff of the Air Force. “When lives are on the line, you move carefully and deliberately into harm’s way with protection of others in mind.”
Goldfein presided over the historic event, presenting Christopher Baradat, a combat controller since separated, and retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller, a pararescueman, the service’s highest valor award.
The Air Force Cross is presented for extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations against an enemy of the United States. These are the eighth and ninth Air Force Crosses to be awarded since Sept 11–all have been awarded to special tactics airmen since the end of the Vietnam War.
“This is the essence of special tactics,” Goldfein said. “You do what others cannot, or will not do, and you do it because it must be done, and because there is no one better.”
Miller and Baradat were previously presented the Silver Star medal for their actions in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2013, before a service-wide review in 2016.
Both medal upgrades were due to a Defense Department-directed review of medals from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure service members are appropriately recognized for their actions.
“We are a highly trained and capable ground combat force leading global access, precision strike, personnel recovery, battlefield surgery and command and control missions. When tandemed with air and space power, we can make the impossible, possible–the decisive edge in battle,” said Col. Michael Martin, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing about the special tactics force. “Keary Miller and Chris Baradat are prime examples of our professional and battle hardened ground combat force.”
During a 17-hour battle on an Afghan mountaintop, then-Tech. Sgt. Miller, a special tactics pararescueman–against overwhelming odds and a barrage of heavy fire from Al Qaeda militants–dashed through deep snow into the line of fire multiple times to assess and care for critically-wounded U.S. service members, March 4, 2002.
“The legacy of Keary Miller is not one of momentary heroism, but of deliberate professional assessment, the application of great skill, and the willingness to risk his life to save another,” said Lt. Col. Shane Mclane, commander of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, an Air National Guard unit of Special Tactics Airmen in Louisville, Ky. “Keary dashed into the line of fire repeatedly–not out of disregard for the risks he faced–but because of his regard for his fellow operator. Each time he did so, he made a deliberate decision to risk his own life to save another. He lived by the pararescue motto: ‘That Others May Live.’”
At the time, Miller was assigned to the 123rd STS. He was the combat search and rescue lead to recover two fellow special operations members from the top of Takur Ghar. During this mission, Miller is credited with saving the lives of 10 U.S. service members, and the recovery of seven who were killed in action.
“We always had a saying, ‘Train as you fight,’ and that’s what we did,” said Miller. “We were used to training to the point of failure so we wouldn’t fail for real. That’s the community we work in. We learn to adapt to stressful and unrealistic environments as a team.”
Eleven years later and more than 100 miles north of Miller’s mission, then-Staff Sgt. Baradat precisely directed 13 500-pound bombs and more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition during three hours of intense fighting against the Taliban in a steep valley, contributing to the safety of 150 troops and destruction of 50 enemy and 13 separate enemy fighting positions in Afghanistan April 6, 2013.
To many, Baradat helped turn the tide of the battle, bringing close-air support to deter an overwhelming enemy force. Teammates and aircrew recalled him stepping into the line of fire without regard for his own safety to protect the force on the ground.
“I don’t feel like I was doing anything above or beyond or heroic that day. I was doing my job that I was supposed to do, with my team,” said Baradat. “I had an amazing [U.S. Army] special forces team that I was with that day…I was just a piece of the puzzle, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone that day.”
At the time, Baradat was on his third deployment to Afghanistan and was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, the most highly-decorated unit in modern Air Force history.
For both medal recipients, the upgrade was both unexpected and humbling–but the focus will always remain on their time serving their country.
“I don’t feel a responsibility as a medal recipient; it’s the oath we take and the enlistment to serve our country,” said Miller. “In the military, you take pride into what you are signing up for…the Air Force has core values you believe in, and that’s your day-to-day lifestyle.”