A combat controller will receive the Air Force's highest combat medal for extraordinary heroism, after a service-wide review of medals awarded since 9/11.
The Air Force Cross will be presented to former Staff Sgt. Christopher Baradat, now separated, who had received the Silver Star medal for his essential role in rescuing 150 coalition members in Afghanistan, April 6, 2013.
"Chris Baradat exemplifies the professionalism, courage and lethality of special tactics Airmen," said Col. Michael E. Martin, the 24th Special Operation Wing commander. "Every day, special tactics Airmen like Chris willingly put themselves in harm's way to fight and win our nation's wars."
While on his third deployment, Baradat was attached to a U.S. Army Special Forces team tasked to support pinned-down coalition forces flanked by enemy fighters in a valley in Kunar Province. As the special forces convoy approached the steep valley, it became clear that the vehicles wouldn't fit through the narrow mountain path.
The Air Force Cross will be presented to former Staff Sgt. Christopher Baradat, now separated, who had previously received the Silver Star medal for his essential role in rescuing 150 coalition members in Afghanistan, April 6, 2013. | Courtesy photo
Baradat and eight others dismounted and sprinted toward the embattled friendly forces, but came under heavy fire within 1,000 meters of their objective. Without hesitation, Baradat identified the enemy's position and called in close air support from A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jets and AC-130 gunships—eliminating the immediate threat. The team pressed toward the friendly forces when they were again pinned down by an avalanche of enemy gunfire from the ridgelines above.
They took cover in a small compound nearby, but the thick walls limited the radio signal, interfering with the ground force's link to the aircraft above. The team was outnumbered and outgunned, Baradat knew it would only be a matter of time before the enemy had them surrounded.
With complete disregard for his own personal safety, Baradat left cover and exposed himself directly to enemy gunfire to communicate with the aircraft above and protect the team. "That was where I needed to be standing to communicate with the aircraft and to get the mission done," he said in an interview from 2014.
Although his team shouted at him to take cover, he systematically began engaging the enemy."I remember repeatedly yelling at him to get behind cover, yet he ignored the warnings, choosing instead to keep fires on the enemy positions," wrote one of his Army Special Forces teammates about the event.
Baradat controlled multiple aircraft while he stood in the open courtyard--sprayed by dirt as rounds impacted the ground near him-- relaying targets he spotted to the aircraft above.
The AC-130 "Spooky" Gunship has a knack for conflict resolution.| US Air Force photo
"Throughout the next two hours, I witnessed (Staff) Sgt. Baradat call for fire and utilize eight different aircraft [six A-10s and two AC-130s] to eliminate the enemy threatening both his team and the friendly forces they were sent to rescue," wrote one of the AC-130 pilots in an after action report. But enemy fire intensified as the single element navigated through the narrow terrain in their armored vehicles, vulnerable to the enemy.
Baradat's radio connection was limited inside the vehicle, so with no hesitation, he positioned himself on the vehicle's running board outside the safety of the vehicle's armor … secured only by a teammate holding onto his belt.
With his body scraping the narrow canyon walls, peppered by falling rocks knocked loose from the heavy machine gun fire, Baradat directed precise strafing runs and bomb drops until the entire team was clear of enemy fire. "You never know what to expect going into any combat situation, but I do feel that the intense and diverse training that I received from … the special tactics community, set me up to handle the stress of the situation," Baradat said of the battle. "I was only one piece of the puzzle that day; if it wasn't for the extreme professionalism and fearless intensity of my Army Special Forces team, the mission could have turned out a lot differently."
In the end, Baradat precisely directed 13 500-pound bombs and over 1,100 rounds of ammunition during three hours of intense fighting, contributing to the safety of 150 troops and destruction of 50 enemy and 13 enemy fighting positions.
Air Force special operators aren't well known, but they have a reputation as brawlers. | U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth
"He is an American hero who did an outstanding job under incredible circumstances, seamlessly integrating air power into a complex and dangerous ground mission," Martin said. The Air Force Cross is presented for extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations against an enemy of the United States. This is the ninth Air Force Cross to be awarded since 9/11; all have been awarded to special tactics Airmen.
The upgrade was 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.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James approved nine medal upgrades for eight Airmen, Jan. 17, 2017, including Baradat and Keary Miller, a retired pararescueman from the Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron.
"I am extremely humbled to receive this award," Baradat said. "The men who have previously been awarded the Air Force Cross have done amazing things on the battlefield, and it is an honor to be a part of that group."