Khost-Gardez, PaKtika province, Afghanistan — July 2009
The eastern Afghan mountains and starry night sky were a ghostly orange in the lenses of Master Sgt. Thomas Case’s night-vision goggles.
The Khost-Gardez region reminded Case, a Special Tactics airman, of the Rocky Mountains. But the majestic scenery and pleasant July night in 2009 belied the dangerous enemy waiting ahead.
Case was part of a Tactical Air Control Party and deployed with two platoons, a classified special operations task force with Army Rangers that had been dropped by Chinooks near the ancient high-altitude pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan to destroy insurgent camps. For the subsequent battle, Case would receive his second Silver Star — a rare occurrence in the military — after a medal for service in Iraq in 2003.
His job was to put air firepower on enemy targets. As the platoons moved up the steep mountainside toward their objective, he said he could hear the occasional buzz of the AC-130 gunship and reconnaissance aircraft supporting the mission.
Case soon discovered the units had gotten off course.
“It’s the old adage that I should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque,” he said. Suddenly, a firefight erupted and “it was literally a crescendo effect of a couple of shots to full-on weapons.”
The fire was coming from an enemy machine-gun nest just 50 feet from Case and the task force. The fighters were using a position on the high ground to pin down the unit.
With rounds hitting trees and dirt just a couple of feet away, Case attempted to call in the AC-130. But his radio was not working.
“The wires were severed in some way,” Case said. “Everything was kind of happening so fast … I made the connection somehow.”
The gunship prepared for another pass over the battle and was a couple of minutes away, so Case called for an update on the enemy position. He realized how close the fighters were, putting support personnel including combat photographers and psychological operations staff in serious danger.
“After he was told the enemy was approximately 15 meters away, Sgt. Case stood up while under enemy fire in order to take charge of five support personnel attached to the platoon,” according to his Silver Star citation. “With enemy gunfire continuing to impact within feet of his position and whizzing by his head, he laid down suppressive fire with his M4 rifle and expertly directed the five enablers to move behind cover.”
Case said he told them, “If you see something move over that way, you need to shoot it.”
The AC-130 was moving into position and Case briefed the ground commander on his plan to call in a “danger close” attack to take out the enemy position 50 feet from the task force.
Case said he had “that fleeting moment of doubt” but believed the gunship’s 25mm rotary cannons were the best option.
“Due to the extreme close proximity of friendly forces to the enemy and with bullets still hitting within feet of his position, he again willingly stood up while under fire in order to make sure the rounds from the AC-130 hit the correct target area,” according to the citation.
The aircraft waged two precision attacks on the insurgents, giving the task force some breathing room, Case said.
Then the enemy charged the task force. Two fighters with AK-47s came “bounding down the hill,” shooting at Case and the commander, the citation said.
“Sgt. Case literally placed himself between the enemy personnel and the ground force commander in order to protect him from the gunfire,” it said. “Employing his M4 rifle and directing the ground force commander to take cover, he then killed both insurgents, both of whom turned out to be highly trained foreign fighters.”
The remaining fighters moved to higher ground and kept up the battle.
“I asked the commander to move up and get a better assessment,” Case said. “He concurred and I went on my own merry way.”
Case climbed more than 160 feet up a 60-degree embankment in a haze of dust kicked up by airstrikes. He was passing Army Rangers, reaching hand over hand and becoming extremely winded as the rush of adrenaline and physical activity began to take a toll. He made it to the front to see the enemy, which was entrenched in some trees.
“They were tossing their grenades down the mountain, lots of booms and whatnot,” Case said.
The blasts damaged his helmet and superficially wounded some in the task force. He fixed his radio again and directed four more AC-130 airstrikes.
He and the lead element of the task force then went in to mop up.
“With the enemy located in the trees, Sgt. Case threw a grenade into their position and then followed up with his M4 rifle to assure both insurgents were dead,” according to the citation.
Case pinned the success of the mission on joint operability with embedded Special Tactics airmen, which he said “pays big dividends,” as well as the precision of the AC-130 strikes.
“My hat’s off to that crew up there that night,” he said.