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Combat controllers contributions honored in ceremony: Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts awarded to 11 Airmen

Thirteen medals were presented to 11 combat controllers during a ceremony April 29 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., presided over by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, and the 11 medal recipients take a moment to recognize Col. (ret.) Joe Jackson.  Colonel Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam in 1968, when he risked his life to ensure no combat controllers were left behind.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and combat controllers from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron take a moment to recognize Col. (ret.) Joe Jackson, a special guest at an April 29 medal ceremony honoring the Airmen at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz visited the base to present 13 medals to 11 combat ontrollers. Colonel Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam in 1968, when he risked his life to ensure no combat controllers were left behind. (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz pins the Silver Star on Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell during a medal ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., April 29.  Two Silver Stars, the nation's third highest decoration for valor, were presented first to Sergeant Harvell for his actions during multiple firefights with enemy forces in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2007.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pins the Silver Star on Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell during a medal ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., April 29. Two Silver Stars, the nation's third highest decoration for valor, were presented to Sergeant Harvell for his actions during multiple firefights with enemy forces in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz pins the Silver Star on Staff Sgt. Evan Jones during a medal ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., April 29.  Sergeant Jones received both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Valor for two separate incidents during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo/Abner Guzman)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pins the Silver Star on Staff Sgt. Evan Jones during a medal ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., April 29. Sergeant Jones received both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Valor for two separate ncidents during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The Air Force's top uniformed officer presented 13 medals to 11 combat controllers during a ceremony here April 29.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz pinned three Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with Valor, three Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts to the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron Airmen for their actions during various deployments to Afghanistan. Two of the Silver Stars were presented to a single individual.

"It is truly a pleasure to be among these great Airmen," said General Schwartz. "Integrity, service, and excellence are embodied in every heroic action we celebrate here today."

The ceremony recognized these "exceptional Airmen," as the general called them, who "accomplished enormous feats without very much fanfare or pageantry" alongside Army, Navy and Marine Corps special operations forces. Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief Master Sgt. James A. Roy, also attended the event honoring the Airmen.

"The families of these Airmen have forged them into men of uncommon valor," said Lt. Col. Bryan Cannady, 22nd STS commander. "It is my honor to serve beside them."

Combat controllers are highly-trained special operations forces and certified Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers who deploy undetected into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields and then provide air traffic control and fire support.

Two Silver Stars, the nation's third highest decoration for valor, were presented to Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell for his actions during multiple firefights with enemy forces in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2007.

In the first engagement, Sergeant Harvell and his coalition unit were completing a reconnaissance patrol through heavily contested Taliban territory. The team was ambushed and engaged the enemy in a firefight for nearly 23 hours. In order to coordinate close-air support, Sergeant Harvell deliberately exposed his position. Though surrounded by enemy fire, he continued to calmly direct air attacks, including a fighter strafing run within 45 feet of his own position.

Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Harvell's team was out on patrol when they saw an American helicopter go down. The team immediately began moving toward the crash site for recovery operations. As the team was en route, they were attacked by an overwhelming Taliban force. Several rocket-propelled grenades impacted Sergeant Harvell's vehicle and he was wounded and knocked unconscious. After coming to, he was able to engage the enemy with return fire and simultaneously direct deadly, danger-close air attacks on the insurgent force. Danger-close range is when friendly forces are within 600 meters of the target when calling for fire. His team's efforts allowed another special operations team to recover the remains of all service members and sensitive equipment from the crash site.

"I feel privileged that my generation is able to serve our country in war," said Sergeant Harvell. "Being a part of something bigger than yourself, depending on other guys and having them depend on you is an honor. Especially as a combat controller, people are depending on you [in order] to come home alive."

Almost two months later, Sergeant Harvell and his Army Special Forces team became engaged in a savage eight-hour firefight with Taliban forces. The firefight took place after the team spent three days in a rolling firefight with the enemy before tracking them to a compound. Sergeant Harvell and his team laid siege to the compound, and he repeatedly exposed his position in order to engage the enemy. As reinforcements arrived, the team withdrew from the compound with Sergeant Harvell providing cover fire for his teammates. Once out of the immediate danger area, he directed fighter aircraft and gunship engagement of the enemy with instant success.

Although clearly an Airman who has repeatedly demonstrates the core value of Service before Self, Sergeant Harvell is humbled by the attention.

"It's an honor that so many people have come out to recognize us," he said. "I realize that General Schwartz is very busy, so for him to come out and personally recognize us is truly an honor. At the same time, I feel kind of guilty, because there are so many other guys out there doing the same thing every day."

Another reluctant hero honored during the ceremony was Staff Sgt. Evan Jones, who received both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Valor for two separate incidents during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008.

Sergeant Jones received the Silver Star for his actions during a firefight with the enemy when his coalition special forces unit was ambushed during a combat reconnaissance mission. The team was taking fire from two directions and Sergeant Jones returned fire while orchestrating close-air support. Continually exposing himself to enemy fire in order to coordinate the destruction of enemy fighting positions, Sergeant Jones was injured when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near his vehicle. He continued to direct air support as his team moved through the engagement area, fighting though a gauntlet of twenty enemy combat positions.

"Honestly, I was just doing my job," said Sergeant Jones. "There are 300-plus combat controllers in the Air Force and all of us are just doing our jobs every day, and doing what we are trained to do."

After returning to the fire base, Sergeant Jones coordinated an urgent medical evacuation for a wounded soldier, and directed an airstrike against enemy forces preparing to ambush another friendly patrol. However, the modest Airman doesn't stop to relive his accomplishments. Instead, he looks ahead to how he can get better, and be more prepared in future engagements.

"It's hard to be flawless in a wartime situation, and it's hard for me not to look back and critique my actions," he said. "When I look back and think about the improvements I want to make, it just forces me to train harder and make sure I'm more prepared next time. We had a casualty during this engagement, and several guys were wounded. I think we honor those guys by just continuing to do the best job we can every day."

In addition to Sergeants Harvell and Jones, nine other combat controllers received commendations.

The following were presented awards:

Staff Sgt. Christopher Martin, 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan summer 2008. During his deployment he directed 22 air attacks, five strafing runs and the release of 8,000 pounds of ordnances during two days of fighting.

Senior Airman Mathew Matlock, 125th Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his deployment to Afghanistan fall 2008 through spring 2009. During his deployment, Airman Matlock conducted more than 35 mounted and dismounted combat patrols and 40 combat operations.

Staff Sgt. Simon Malson, 22nd STS, was awarded The Bronze Star with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan during summer through winter 2008. During his deployment, Sergeant Malson participated in 20 direct-fire engagements, 50 combat missions and controlled over 100 aircraft flights resulting in more than 125 enemies killed in action.

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Reiss, 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan summer to winter 2008. During his deployment, Sergeant Reiss conducted more than 50 combat missions, and delivered Air Power in five direct-fire engagements, which led to 60 enemies killed.

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Guilmain, 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his deployment to Afghanistan summer through fall 2006. During his deployment, Sergeant Guilmain was attached to an coalition forces unit where he conducted 20 mounted and dismounted patrols and controlled more than 50 aircraft to include the A-10, B-1 and AC-130.

Tech. Sgt. Christopher Keeler, 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his deployment to Afghanistan summer-winter 2008. During his deployment, Sergeant Keeler was attached to four separate Special Forces teams where he was the main Joint Terminal Attack Controller and was also a trainer to Afghanistan's 150 Army Special Force Commandos. While deployed, Sergeant Keeler conducted 15 combat missions that lead to 15 insurgents killed.

Staff Sgt. Sean Mullins, 22nd STS, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his deployment to Afghanistan summer through winter 2008. During Sergeant Mullins deployment, he conducted more than 30 tactical missions, controlled over 20 aircraft and facilitated the deployment of more than 5,000 pounds of ordnance that resulted in 50 enemies killed.

Tech. Sgt. Marc Tirres, 22nd STS, was presented the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered while responding to a well coordinated insurgent attack on Afghanistan National Government facilities in January 2010. During this mission, he assaulted up three stories to engage a well armed and barricaded enemy. Because of his actions, the entrenched force was destroyed within hours compared to previous terrorist attacks which took days to stop. Upon further clearing of the building an explosive device detonated causing shrapnel wounds to left side of face, arm, and leg as well as his left eye.

Tech. Sgt. Douglas Neville, 22nd STS, was presented the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered a a large-scale mission to disrupt insurgent activity in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in January 2010. As enemy rounds grazed his position, Sergeant Neville returned fire, emptying six magazines. Enemy snipers hit Sergeant Neville twice. To escape the deadly fire, Sergeant Neville had no choice but to jump 20 feet off of the building, severely fracturing his foot upon landing.

(Capt. Ali Kojak, 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs and Senior Airman David Salanitri, Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)