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The Air Force Cross medal is displayed during a ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017.
The Air Force Cross medal is displayed during a ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
The Air Force Cross medal is displayed during a ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017.
The Air Force Cross medal is displayed during a ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, hugs a member of the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group after an Air Force Cross ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to  Germanovich for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017.
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, hugs a member of the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group after an Air Force Cross ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Germanovich for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, leads U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army service members as they perform memorial pushups following an Air Force Cross ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, leads U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army service members as they perform memorial pushups following an Air Force Cross ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, hugs his mother and father after being awarded the Air Force Cross, Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Germanovich for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017.
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, hugs his mother and father after being awarded the Air Force Cross, Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, presented the medal to Germanovich for his actions during a fierce firefight in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, April 8, 2017. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
The father of Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, pins the Air Force Cross medal on his son, Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
The father of Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, pins the Air Force Cross medal on his son, Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, watches as Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, speaks of his accomplishments during an Air Force Cross ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, 26th Special Tactics Squadron combat controller, watches as Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, speaks of his accomplishments during an Air Force Cross ceremony Dec. 10, 2020, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. (Michael Washburn/U.S. Air Force )
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, a combat controller with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing, Air Force Special Operations Command, was presented with the Air Force Cross at a ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base N.M. on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.
Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich, a combat controller with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing, Air Force Special Operations Command, was presented with the Air Force Cross at a ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base N.M. on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. (U.S. Air Force)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. Alaxey Germanovich dozed off briefly during a break in a harrowing two-week fight to oust Islamic State fighters from a remote valley in eastern Afghanistan, but he awoke to the sound of a belt-fed machine gun.

The Air Force combat controller rushed into the fight, calling in Hellfire missiles to take out two suicide bombers, then directed bombing and strafing runs against an overwhelming enemy force that had pinned down an Army Special Forces team he was accompanying.

He later used his body to protect one of the Americans, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) member Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, after he was cut down by a PKM machine gun as the team of U.S. troops closed on an enemy sniper position.

For his bravery, Germanovich was presented the Air Force Cross, the service’s highest medal for combat bravery, in a ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico on Thursday. The award is second only to the Medal of Honor.

“You risked your life and weathered blistering enemy fire to save the lives of others,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said during the event, streamed live on social media. “This Air Force Cross is a tribute to your persistence.”

What was supposed to be a weeklong U.S. and Afghan operation to clear some 450 ISIS fighters from the rugged terrain in Nangarhar province turned into 17 days of continuous close combat, Barrett said.

The actions Germanovich were honored for came about a week into the mission, on April 8, 2017, when ambushed coalition forces fought a grueling 8-hour gun battle under machine gun and sniper fire from all sides, the award citation says.

Germanovich is the 12th member of the Air Force’s Special Tactics community to receive the medal for extraordinary heroism since the 9/11 attacks. Special Tactics airmen are ground special operations troops that direct airstrikes, recover personnel and conduct battlefield surgeries.

ISIS opposition had been heavy from the get-go, with gunfights and airstrikes “all day, every day,” Germanovich said in an Air Force video released after the ceremony. It got worse as they pushed the ISIS fighters toward the Pakistan border.

“Near the end of the valley … it became more violent,” said Germanovich, assigned to the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing.

He and the Special Forces soldiers were pinned down “basically in the open,” he said in the video. He called in heavy strikes against a large enemy force occupying a tree-line, some hitting less than a football field's length away from him.

“That’s really where dropping bombs really gets scary,” he said in the video. “We started with like some 500-pound bombs. That wasn’t working, so we started dropping 2,000-pound bombs. That worked for a little bit.”

With ordnance falling, he called for the team to dash for cover. As they dove behind a rock, one bomb burst in the air, throwing deadly fragments across the area they’d just run from, he said.

At one point, the leader of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) A-team identified an enemy sniper position in a narrow cave at the top of a rocky outcropping. The Americans assaulted the cave, but De Alencar was shot in the process and mortally wounded.

Germanovich, then a senior airman on his first deployment, put himself between nearby enemy forces to protect his fellow Americans with his body, the citation says.

As the battle dragged on, the American and Afghan forces expended all of their ammunition and grenades, but there were still enemy fighters all around and the AC-130W Stinger II gunship overhead was low on fuel.

“As they (the AC-130) were leaving, I said, ‘If you don’t come back, we’re dead,” Germanovich said.

It did return and began “doing God’s work” firing on the enemy, he said, giving him and the others a chance to move De Alencar to safety. Germanovich helped carry his comrade nearly a half-mile uphill to a helicopter landing zone for evacuation.

“This battle was a case study in toughness and extraordinary competence,” Col. Matthew Allen, the special operations wing commander, said at Thursday’s ceremony. “But it was also a case study in love. The type of love that demands teammates fight for one another and give everything they have.”

Germanovich’s actions protected more than 150 friendly troops, Barrett said. “He was intrepid and relentless,” she said.

But he was only doing the job he trained for, he said.

“You reflexively just want to protect your teammates, you don’t care about anything else,” he said. “Every single one of those guys would have done everything in their power to do anything they could to help the next guy.”

Following the ceremony, Germanovich led the ceremony’s attendees in pushups, a Special Tactics tradition, to honor De Alencar, who he called “D.”

“D paid the ultimate price,” he said in the video, his eyes tearing up. “I got to walk away. … I got lucky.” wellman.phillip@stripes.com Twitter: @pwwellmangarland.chad@stripes.com Twitter: @chadgarland

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Chad is a Marine Corps veteran who covers the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. An Illinois native who’s reported for news outlets in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Oregon and California, he’s an alumnus of the Defense Language Institute, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Arizona State University.
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