Kentucky Air Guardsman to receive Air Force Cross for heroism in Afghanistan

A painting commissioned by the National Guard Bureau commemorates the 2002 Battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan, during which an Airman from the Kentucky Air National Guard was instrumental in saving the lives of 10 wounded servicemen. The Airman, retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller, was initially awarded the Silver Star medal for his actions, but the award was upgraded to the Air Force Cross on Jan. 17, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo)

A painting commissioned by the National Guard Bureau commemorates the 2002 Battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan, during which an Airman from the Kentucky Air National Guard was instrumental in saving the lives of 10 wounded servicemen. The Airman, retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller, was initially awarded the Silver Star medal for his actions, but the award was upgraded to the Air Force Cross on Jan. 17, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A retired Airman from the Kentucky Air National Guard will receive the Air Force's highest honor for his extraordinary heroism during combat operations in Afghanistan, the Air Force announced Jan. 19.

Master Sgt. Keary Miller, a former pararescueman in the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, had initially been awarded the Silver Star for actions during a grueling 17-hour siege on a remote Afghan mountain called Takur Ghar in 2002. That decoration was officially upgraded to the Air Force Cross on Jan. 17 as part of a Defense Department-directed review of Air Force combat medals.

"Sergeant Miller's heroic and selfless actions during the Battle of Takur Ghar represent the very finest qualities of the Airmen of the Kentucky Air National Guard," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Hogan, adjutant general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. "He repeatedly risked his own life under enemy fire to render life-saving assistance to multiple wounded U.S. service members while distributing ammunition to Army Rangers defending their position. It is entirely appropriate that Sergeant Miller is now being recognized with the Air Force's highest combat decoration."

The Battle of Takur Ghar was part of a larger effort named Operation Anaconda, which was intended to defeat Taliban forces hiding in Paktia province. On the third day of the operation -- March 4, 2002 -- a U.S. Army MH-47E Chinook helicopter was fired upon as it attempted to land on the mountain.

"Taking heavy fire, the helicopter lurched and attempted to take off to extricate itself from the field of fire," according to an official account published by the National Guard Bureau. "When the Chinook lurched, one of the Navy SEALs on board, Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts, fell from the rear ramp. Too damaged to return for Petty Officer Roberts, the Chinook landed further down the mountain. A second MH-47E attempted to land and rescue Roberts, but it too was fired upon and forced to leave the immediate area. The third MH-47E to attempt a landing on what became known as Roberts' Ridge was hit with automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades while still 20 feet in the air."

That helicopter, carrying Miller and an Army Ranger team, hit the ground hard, according to the official account.

"Within seconds, one helicopter crewman, the right door gunner, was killed, as were three Army Rangers," the account said.

The remainder of the assault team formed a hasty defense despite five critical casualties, with Miller dragging the helicopter pilot to safety and crossing open danger areas under heavy fire to assess and care for wounded servicemen. As the 17-hour battle drew on, Miller removed ammunition from the deceased and, in multiple acts of extraordinary courage, proceeded through rocket-propelled grenade, mortar and small-arms fire to re-distribute the ammunition to defense forces.

Shortly thereafter, another attack erupted, killing one pararescueman and compromising the casualty collection point. Miller braved the barrage of fire in order to move the wounded to better cover and concealment, according to his award citation.

Miller's courageousness and skill ultimately led to the successful delivery of 10 gravely wounded Americans to life-saving medical treatment and the recovery of seven servicemen killed in action, the citation said.

The upgrade of Miller's Silver Star follows a review of combat medals conducted by the Department of Defense. It was one of nine upgrades approved by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who leaves office Jan. 20 with the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama.

"We recognize and celebrate our Airmen for their service, actions and sacrifices," James said. "These are people whose lifestyle includes going above and beyond the call of duty and exemplifying the Air Force core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. I'm so grateful that I have the privilege of approving all recommended upgrades and presenting two of these awards as one of my final acts as secretary of the Air Force."

Miller's conduct during the Battle of Takur Ghar has been commemorated as part of a permanent exhibit on battlefield Airmen at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.