Zachary Rhyner

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Zachary Rhyner
US Air Force Combat Controller SSgt Zachary Rhyner.JPG
Staff Sergeant Zachary Rhyner on patrol with an Army Special Forces team in Afghanistan, 2008.
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Air Force
Years of service 2004–present
Rank E6 USAF TSGT.svg Technical Sergeant

War in Afghanistan

Iraq War
Operation Unified Response
Awards Air Force Cross
Bronze Star
Purple Heart (2)

Technical Sergeant[1] Zachary Rhyner is a Combat Controller (CCT) in the United States Air Force. His hometown is Medford, Wisconsin. While still a Senior Airman, he received the Air Force Cross for his actions in the Battle of Shok Valley on 6 April 2008 in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.[2] He was the first living, and second ever, Combat Controller to receive the Air Force Cross after TSgt John A. Chapman was posthumously awarded the medal in 2002 for his actions during the Battle of Takur Ghar.[2][3][4] In addition to his Air Force Cross Rhyner is the recipient of two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star Medal and the Air Force Combat Action Medal among others.[1] His first Purple Heart he received for the Battle of Shok Valley, while the second Purple Heart was from a deployment to northern Afghanistan in March 2013 where a gunshot wound shattered his right femur and hip.[1][5] He has deployed six times, including Iraq and Afghanistan.[1] He has also participated in humanitarian assistance operations as well and was a part of Operation Unified Response in Haiti during the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[1]

Early military career[edit]

Rhyner enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on 31 May 2004. He completed Basic Military Training as an Honor Graduate at Lackland AFB, Texas, in August 2004. A1C Rhyner then went through the Combat Control training "pipeline" which lasted from August 2004 until 2007. The Combat Control training pipeline consisted of the Combat Control Orientation Course at Lackland AFB, the Combat Control Operator course at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, then U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Afterwards he travelled to Fairchild AFB, Washington, for the U.S. Air Force Basic Survival School. Next he went to the Combat Control School at Pope AFB, North Carolina, where he would be later stationed. He next attended Special Tactics Advanced Skills Training at Hurlburt Field, Florida, for upwards of a year. While in AST Rhyner also attended the Army Military Freefall Parachutist School at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, and lastly the U.S. Air Force Combat Diver school in Panama City, Florida. After completing the Combat Control training pipeline he was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope AFB (later Pope Field).[6]

Battle of Shok Valley[edit]

Zachary Rhyner and Army Special Forces soldiers of ODA 3336 in the Shok Valley prior to the battle

On 6 April 2008, a 130-man combined assault force, dubbed Commando Wrath, performed a day-time rotary-wing insertion down into a remote valley of the Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.[7] Commando Wrath was composed of three Special Forces teams with each team having a Combat Controller attached, and a company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion.[7] Rhyner, just six months out of training and on his first deployment,[8] was attached to the C2-element (command and control) of Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3336, from the 3rd Special Forces Group.[7][9] Their mission was to capture Haji Ghafour, a high-ranking commander of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) militant group.[7] Shortly after landing the assault force was ambushed and pinned down and the assault force was split in two on either side of a river.[7]

Rhyner and several Special Forces members were wounded throughout the course of the battle.[7] Rhyner was shot twice in the chest and once in the leg, although his protective vest stopped the two bullets to his chest from causing a mortal injury.[10][11] Despite being wounded within the first fifteen minutes of the battle, Rhyner continued to direct close air support and airstrikes until the assault force was evacuated seven hours later.[7] 50 of the airstrikes he called in were within 200m of friendly positions; the term "danger close" is applied when referring to airstrikes within 600m.[12][13] He was credited with saving the entire 100-man team from being overrun twice.[14][15] According to the Air Force Cross citation, during the battle Rhyner directed close air support and airstrikes totalling 4,570 cannon rounds, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs, and one 2,000-pound bomb.[16] As a result of the same battle, ten U.S. Army soldiers, nine Special Forces and one Combat Cameraman received the Silver Star, the greatest number of Silver Stars awarded for a single battle since the Vietnam War.[7][17][18]

Capt. Stewart Parker, the Command and Control Special Forces commander at Bagram Air Base during the battle, said of Rhyner: "Rhyner is out of training less than a year and is in one of the most difficult situations ... it is an absolute testament to his character and the training these guys take. It tells me we are doing something right."[14] During a Fox News interview with Glen Beck, Beck asked Rhyner "... there are only — what is it? — 192 people who have ever received the Air Force Cross ... How do you put that together in your head? I mean, you are in a very elite group." Rhyner simply replied with "Any other combat controller put in the same situation would have performed in the same, exact way ... Credit that to the training we receive and the process that we go through to become a combat controller."[19] Future Air Force Cross recipient, and fellow Combat Controller, Robert Gutierrez was also present at the Battle of Shok Valley with Rhyner, albeit with a different Special Forces team, and regarding Rhyner's actions he said reportedly, "If it wasn't for Zach, I wouldn't be here."[14]

Awards and honors[edit]

Air Force Cross[edit]

SSgt Zachary Rhyner receiving his Air Force Cross citation

The Air Force Cross was presented to him by Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley. Prior to presenting the award Donley stated to Rhyner "Your actions are now and forever woven into the rich fabric of service, integrity and excellence that has connected generations of America's Airmen since the very inception of airpower, Rarely do we present an Airman with the Air Force Cross, let alone a Purple Heart, and with good reason. The Air Force Cross is reserved for those who demonstrate unparalleled valor in the face of insurmountable odds."[20] Afterwards, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force General Norton Schwartz presented Rhyner with his Purple Heart.[20] The last time an Air Force Cross was bestowed upon a living recipient was when Timothy Wilkinson was awarded it for his heroic actions during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.[21]

His award citation reads:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross to Senior Airman Zachary J. Rhyner, United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an armed enemy of the United States while serving with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, at Nuristan Province, Afghanistan on 6 April 2008. On that date, while assigned as Special Tactics Combat Controller, Airman Rhyner executed a day rotary-wing infiltration with his Special Forces team to capture high-value insurgents in a village on the surrounding mountains. While climbing near vertical terrain to reach their objective, the team was attacked in a well-coordinated and deadly ambush. Devastating sniper, machine gun, and rocket-propelled grenade fire poured down on the team from elevated and protected positions on all sides, immediately pinning down the assault force. Without regard for his life, Airman Rhyner placed himself between the most immediate threats and provided suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle against enemy fire while teammates were extracted from the line of fire. Airman Rhyner bravely withstood the hail of enemy fire to control eight United States Air Force fighters and four United States Army attack helicopters. Despite a gunshot wound to the left leg and being trapped on a 60-foot cliff under constant enemy fire, Airman Rhyner controlled more than 50 attack runs and repeatedly repelled the enemy with repeated danger close air strikes, several within 100 meters of his position. Twice, his actions prevented his element from being overrun during the intense six-and-a-half-hour battle. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Airman Rhyner reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.[2]

Other honors[edit]

In 2008 he was presented the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs' Grateful Nation Award by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, for his actions during the Battle of Shok Valley.[22][23] In 2009 Rhyner won a United Service Organizations of Metropolitan Washington Special Salute award as the 2008 USO Airman of the Year for his heroic efforts in Afghanistan the year prior. The award was presented to him by Air Force General Norton Schwartz.[10][11]

In art[edit]

Rhyner is the subject of an artpiece called "Bandage 33" by Warren Neary, it depicts Rhyner laying on a stretcher in critical condition being cared for by two medical personnel on his medevac flight out of Afghanistan in 2013.[24]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Zachary Rhyner saluted Sunday for Operation Fan Mail". Archived from the original on 25 December 2013. Retrieved 9 April 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c "Hall of Valor: Zachary Rhyner". Military Times. Archived from the original on 8 April 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  3. ^ LaRaia, Senior Airman Becky J.; McKeown, Lisa Terry; 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs (8 April 2005). "Ship takes heroic legacy to the fight". US Air Force. Archived from the original on 19 October 2012. Retrieved 15 January 2010. 
  4. ^ Neal, Airman 1st Class Jason A.; 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs (13 January 2003). "Pope combat controller awarded Air Force Cross". US Air Force. Archived from the original on 6 October 2012. Retrieved 15 January 2010. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Veteran Tributes". Veteran Tributes. 31 May 2004. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Mitch Weiss; Kevin Mauer (2012). No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan. The Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-425-25340-3. 
  8. ^ John Ramsey (11 March 2009). "Airman gets medal for valor". Fayetteville Observer. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b Fred W. Baker III (10 September 2009). "USO gala honors troops, sacrifices". American Forces Press Service. Retrieved 12 April 2014. 
  11. ^ a b "Photo Essay - US Metro 27th Annual Awards Dinner". U.S. Department of Defense. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2014. 
  12. ^ "Thesaurus - Danger Close". U.S. Army Center for Army Lessons Learned. 17 September 2008. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  13. ^ Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) (7 June 2010). "AFSOC's Advanced Skills Training". Defense Media Network. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c Capt. Laura Ropelis. "Air Commando saves lives in Afghanistan". United States Air Force. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  15. ^ "Airman to Receive Air Force Cross". 27 February 2009. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  16. ^ "Combat controller receives Air Force Cross, Purple Heart". 3/11/2009. Retrieved 17 January 2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  17. ^ "Incident Report: A Raging Firefight". Wikileaks via New York Times. 25 July 2010. Archived from the original on 27 August 2011. 
  18. ^ Gina Cavallaro (15 December 2008). "Valor of combat cameraman earns him Silver Star". Army Times. Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  19. ^ Brig. Gen. Darryl Burke (29 July 2010). "Avoid the vertical pronoun". Fort Leonard Wood Guidon. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014. 
  20. ^ a b Tech. Sgt. Amaani Lyle. "Combat controller receives Air Force Cross, Purple Heart". Pope AFB. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2014. 
  21. ^ "Hall of Heroes Air Force Cross Recipients". Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 8 September 2012. 
  22. ^ "And the 2008 Grateful Nation Award Recipients Are...". 14 November 2008. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2008. 
  23. ^ "Photo Essay – Chairman Presents Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs Grateful Nation Awards". U.S. Department of Defense. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2014. 
  24. ^