'It turned into a battle for survival'

WASHINGTON — At the height of the battle, one of the many bullets whizzing around Air Force Capt. Barry Crawford sheared the antenna off the radio the combat air controller wore on his back.

He did not dive for cover, opting instead to remain in the sights of surrounding Taliban gunners while he visually guided the helicopters that would evacuate wounded Afghan commandos. After mounting a spare antenna, he was back in action, directing airstrikes and, when the fighting intensified, attacking the enemy directly with his assault rifle.

Though the combined American-Afghan force had walked into an ambush by a Taliban force far larger than expected, the allied death toll during the 14-hour engagement on May 4, 2010, was limited to two Afghan soldiers. U.S. airpower decimated the Taliban.

Crawford’s heroism during the battle — for which several Army Special Forces soldiers had been awarded Silver and Bronze Stars for valor — earned him the Air Force Cross, the highest the Air Force can give and second only to the Medal of Honor.

About 100 Afghan and American troops left the helicopters hours before dawn and entered a village in Laghman province known to support the Taliban. But instead of a sleeping village, they found a village deserted.

It was a chilling discovery. Subsequent radio chatter from the surrounding countryside indicated a large enemy force preparing an attack in the darkness beyond.

“Our senses became very heightened,” said Crawford, who was accompanying an Army Special Forces unit mentoring a larger group of Afghan army commandos.

Combat controllers frequently travel with elite units like Green Berets and Navy SEALs on dangerous missions. Though such units are capable of inflicting serious damage on enemy forces, combat controllers — who in addition to being deadly special operators themselves are certified air traffic controllers with expertise in targeting air strikes — add a new dimension to the fight when more is needed than the weapons that troops are carrying.

“That’s where I come into play as the combat controller, calling in the heavy ordnance from the Army rotary wing, and the Air Force and Navy (tactical) air,” Crawford said.

Rather than withdraw, the troops began searching the village for weapons and other sign of Taliban activity. As expected, insurgents in the surrounding hills opened fire at dawn.

“Once the sun came up, it turned into a battle for survival for about the next 14 hours, where every element was under continuous enemy fire from multiple positions,” Crawford said. “The enemy was completely around us, they had called in reinforcements, and they were using the terrain to their advantage.”

With small-arms fire raking the village and several machine gunners zeroed in on exposed coalition troops, several Afghan commandoes fell — three wounded, two dead. Crawford summoned helicopters to get them out, but the landing zone was far from secure.

“Recognizing the wounded Afghan soldiers would die without evacuation to definitive care, Captain Crawford ... ran out into the open in an effort to guide the helicopter to the landing zone,” according to the medal citation. “Once the pilot had his eyes on the position, Captain Crawford remained exposed, despite have one of his radio antennas shot off mere inches from his face, while he vectored in the aircraft.”

Crawford then bounded across open terrain, the citation said, firing his rifle at Taliban positions and calling in airstrikes to cover the medevac helicopters while they picked up the casualties. The helicopters were forced to retreat with only four of the Afghans after taking direct hits from small-arms fire, but Crawford planned another counterattack, allowing the final casualty to be evacuated.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re American or if they’re Afghani, they’re our teammates, so there’s never a question of saying, ‘He’s Afghani, so I’m not going to risk my life for him,’” Crawford said. “And that day, everyone did heroics. It didn’t matter what their nationality was.”

Although no Americans were seriously wounded, a Special Forces medic was thrown to the ground when several shots struck his medical bag. A Green Beret received a grazing wound to his ankle.

As the coalition group retreated from the village through mountainous terrain, the Taliban attacked again, pinning down Crawford’s group. In response, he “moved alone across open terrain in the kill zone to locate and engage enemy positions with his assault rifle while integrating AH-64s and F-15Es in a coordinated air to ground attack plan that included strafing runs along with 500 and 2,000 pound bombs and Hellfire missile strikes,” according to his medal citation.

The coalition force made it out with no further serious injuries. Their attackers had been killed or sent scurrying. It would be months before the Taliban could regroup in the area, Crawford said.

After more than eight years in the active-duty Air Force — and a fistful of awards and decorations in addition to the Air Force Cross — Crawford transitioned to the Maryland National Guard in 2011. He is now back living with his wife and two young children.

He has plans to return to battle, but he’ll be in the air rather than on the ground. Crawford was accepted into a fighter pilot training program that will teach him to fly the A-10 ground-attack aircraft.

He came to develop a unique respect for the affectionately nicknamed “Warthog” during his time in combat.

“I witnessed firsthand as the enemy fighters saw it and they backed off and didn’t want to mess with it,” he said.

A new career as a pilot, he said, “will allow me to stay in the fight a lot longer.”

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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