POOLER, Ga. --
The joint special operations team was pinned down in a creek bed as dirt, rock and water exploded into the air.
A cacophony of gunfire and bursting grenades disoriented the team and any terrain that could be used as protection quickly withered away.
The situation was bad and getting worse, with one of the team members taking a bullet to the chest.
At this moment, the training and instincts of an Air Force Special Tactics operator began guiding precision strike air power as close as 35 meters away to turn the tide of battle against the overwhelming enemy ambush.
In the span of six hours, with no regard for his own safety, the Airman stepped into heavy enemy fire, directed dozens of 40 mm and 105 mm rounds, two 500-pound bombs and saved the life of a wounded teammate … even after being shot himself in the chest plate.
A crowd of over 250 family, friends and U.S. service members gathered as U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Vincent Becklund, deputy commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presented the Silver Star Medal to U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cam Kelsch, an ST Tactical Air Control Party operator assigned to the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, during a ceremony at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum here, April 9.
Kelsch was deployed with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan in support of Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL and RESOLUTE SUPPORT in early April 2018.
As an ST TACP, Kelsch is part of a highly trained special operations community that lethally integrates air power into the battlespace by controlling precision strike munitions and delivering destructive ordnance on enemy targets in support of offensive combat operations.
“There’s one thing that Cam had that day that we can’t teach, instruct, or measure,” said Becklund. “The reason we’re here today is because Cam distinguished himself on the battlefield that night through his courage, his selflessness, and his devotion to his teammates.”
On April 25, 2018, Kelsch alongside Army Rangers and Afghan special forces were directed to find a high-value target in enemy-held territory. With clear skies and the moon’s illumination sitting high at 90 percent, Kelsch’s team made first contact with enemy forces outside of the target compound.
According to Kelsch, the contact resulted in a small firefight that quickly neutralized the enemy.
As the team successfully secured the target compound and interdicted the targeted individual, the force continued to encounter small enemy forces. Intelligence gathered during the operation within the compound led Kelsch and his team to believe there was a second high-value target nearby.
Due to the brightness of the night, Kelsch utilized the oversight of an AC-130-U Spooky gunship to develop a low-profile route for the assault force to maneuver to the next target compound: a creek bed with a path around a foot wide.
“When we were down in the creek bed, it was pitch black because we were covered in trees and there were high walls on either side of us,” said Kelsch.
Then … chaos.
“It was like a bomb went off,” Kelsch said. “It was so bright and looked like fireballs going off all around me.”
Kelsch and his team were ambushed by enemy forces using assault rifles, fragmentation grenades and belt-fed machine guns.
An American teammate was hit in the chest and collapsed in front of Kelsch as he and his ground force commander sought cover behind nearby rocks. Kelsch initially thought that he was killed in action.
“The fire was so overwhelming, I couldn’t stick my head out,” Kelsch said. “Bullets were ricocheting; dirt was being kicked up.”
Another teammate called out the position of the attackers … a mere 40 meters away.
“I realized that I had to get eyes on target, so I had to leave the protection of cover,” Kelsch said.
With no regard for his own safety, Kelsch exposed himself to fire to conduct danger close air strikes from the AC-130 with 40mm rounds to suppress the threat, several only 35 meters away from his position.
“If it weren’t for the true competency of that AC-130 crew, I wouldn’t be here today,” Kelsch said. “The aircrew really brought their A-game that night and made sure we got out of there.”
With a moment without fire in all directions, Kelsch and his ground force commander seized the opportunity to recover their wounded teammate. While dragging him to safety, Kelsch took a direct hit to the magazine on his chest rack -- the plate in his armor caught the bullet.
Upon recovering his wounded teammate and receiving more enemy fire, Kelsch opted to upgrade to the 105mm rounds from the gunship, still danger close to his fighting position. The effective munitions proved enough to allow Kelsch and his team to fall back roughly 100 meters, but not before suffering an Afghan casualty.
At that time, the team elected to call for extraction.
To ensure aircraft could land so close to the ambush site, Kelsch directed a coordinated attack from two F-16 Fighting Falcons using precision guided 500-pound bombs, neutralizing all remaining threats.
In the end, Kelsch’s actions played a role in completing a successful mission, suppressing multiple prepared forces, and saving the lives of the joint SOF team.
“I did not think that a fight that big would ensue when we were going after that target,” said Kelsch. “It was just another day, another mission.”
Kelsch credits the medal awarded to him for his efforts during the engagement to his entire joint team.
“I just feel that I’m receiving it on behalf of my team simply because we’re all in that situation,” Kelsch said. “We all had different roles to execute that night and we all brought the fight to the enemy to make sure that we all got out of that creek bed alive and the objective that we went out there to accomplish was met.”
Kelsch also commends his Afghan special operation forces that were with him during the operation.
“The Afghan partner forces are true patriots for their country,” Kelsch said. “They want their country to be rid of terrorists. They want peace. They’re professional, they’re lethal, they’re highly trained. It was an honor to work with them.”
Kelsch’s ground force commander for the mission, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Phillip Paquette, 75th Ranger Regiment, also received a Silver Star Medal for his valiant actions during the same engagement.
“Sergeant Kelsch is the epitome of a professional,” Paquette said. “One of [his] greatest attributes is his dedication to the mission and fellow Rangers. Sergeant Kelsch’s actions directly contributed to the recovery of wounded team members and the safe extraction of the objective area.”
In addition to the Silver Star Medal, Becklund also presented Kelsch a Bronze Star Medal with Valor for actions while on the same deployment.
“For well over 6,000 days and 65 combat deployments, the joint effort of the 17th STS and the 75th Ranger Regiment has paired the Department of Defense’s most lethal JTAC’s with the world’s premier direct action raid force,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Booker, commander of the 17th STS. “This pairing has continuously dealt devastation to our country’s enemies across the globe, year after year.”
Special Tactics Airmen are the Special Operations Command’s air/ground integration force who conduct personnel recovery, global access, precision strike missions and battlefield surgical operations.
Since 9/11, ST Airmen have received one Medal of Honor, nine Air Force Crosses and 45 Silver Star Medals. Kelsch is the first Air Force TACP operator to be awarded the Silver Star for actions in combat during the last seven years.
“Cam had the guts to carry out this and other extremely dangerous missions because of the operators to his left and right,” said Booker. “Whether it be a fellow Airman, Ranger, or any other part of his team; Cam is always willing to put his life on the line for them. He is the epitome of the ‘next great generation of warfighters.’”