By Senior Airman Ryan Conroy , 24th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 21, 2017
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- A seven-foot bronze statue stood prominently over a sea of multi-colored berets, flanked by the chief of staff of the Air Force and the service’s newest Air Force Cross recipients during a ceremony here April 20.
Two Airmen, whose heroics were separated by 11 years and 100 miles in the same war zone, solidified a Special Tactics legacy that has seen a great deal of action since 9/11. For their service, they were both presented with the Air Force Cross by Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff.
“You represent the finest traits America can ask of its warriors, as you fight alongside joint and coalition teammates in crises of the highest consequence,” Goldfein said during the ceremony. “When lives are on the line, you move carefully and deliberately into harm’s way with protection of others in mind.”
The ceremony marked the first time that two Air Force Crosses were simultaneously presented to Airmen at the Special Tactics memorial.
Goldfein presided over the historic event, presenting Christopher Baradat, a combat controller since separated, and Master Sgt. (Ret.) Keary Miller, former pararescueman, with the service’s highest award for valor. Miller was assigned to the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron at the time of his courageous acts.
The Air Force Cross is presented for extraordinary heroism while engaged in military operations against an enemy of the United States. These are the eighth and ninth Air Force Crosses to be awarded since 9/11-- all have been awarded to Special Tactics Airmen since the end of the Vietnam War.
“This is the essence of Special Tactics,” Goldfein said. “You do what others cannot, or will not do, and you do it because it must be done, and because there is no one better.”
Miller and Baradat were previously presented the Silver Star Medal for their actions in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2013, before a service-wide review of medals was conducted in 2016. Both medal upgrades resulted from a DOD-directed review of medals from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to ensure service members are appropriately recognized for their actions.
“We are a highly trained and capable ground combat force leading global access, precision strike, personnel recovery, battlefield surgery, and command-and-control missions," said Col. Michael Martin, commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing here. "When tandemed with air and space power, we can make the impossible, possible -- the decisive edge in battle. Keary Miller and Chris Baradat are prime examples of our professional and battle-hardened ground combat force.”
During a 17-hour firefight on an Afghan mountaintop on March 4, 2002, then-Tech. Sgt. Miller -- against overwhelming odds and a barrage of heavy fire from Al Qaeda militants -- dashed through deep snow into the line of fire multiple times to assess and care for critically wounded U.S. service members.
“The legacy of Keary Miller is not one of momentary heroism, but of deliberate professional assessment, the application of great skill and the willingness to risk his life to save another,” said Lt. Col. Sean McClane, commander of the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron in Louisville, Kentucky. “Keary dashed into the line of fire repeatedly -- not out of disregard for the risks he faced -- but because of his regard for his fellow operator. Each time he did so, he made a deliberate decision to risk his own life to save another. He lived by the pararescue motto, ‘That Others May Live.’”
At the time, Miller was the combat search-and-rescue lead to recover two fellow special operations members from the top of a mountain range called Takur Ghar. During the mission, Miller is credited with saving the lives of 10 U.S. service members and the recovery of seven who were killed in action.
“We always had a saying, ‘Train as you fight,’ and that’s what we did,” Miller said. “We were used to training to the point of failure so we wouldn’t fail for real. That’s the community we work in; we learn to adapt to stressful and unrealistic environments as a team.”
Eleven years later and more than 100 miles north of Miller’s mission, then-Staff Sgt. Baradat precisely directed thirteen 500-pound bombs and more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition during three hours of intense fighting against the Taliban in a steep valley, contributing to the safety of 150 troops and the destruction of 50 enemy and 13 separate enemy fighting positions.
To many, Baradat helped turn the tide of the battle in Afghanistan on April 6, 2013, bringing close-air support to deter an overwhelming enemy force. Teammates and aircrew recalled him stepping into the line of fire without regard for his own safety to protect the ground force.
“I don’t feel like I was doing anything above or beyond or heroic that day; I was doing my job that I was supposed to do, with my team,” Baradat said. “I had an amazing [U.S. Army] Special Forces team that I was with that day … I was just a piece of the puzzle, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone that day.”
At the time, Baradat was on his third deployment to Afghanistan and was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, the most highly-decorated unit in modern Air Force history.
For both medal recipients, the upgrade was both unexpected and humbling -- but the focus will always remain on their time serving their country.
“I don’t feel a responsibility as a medal recipient; it’s the oath we take and the enlistment to serve our country,” Miller said. “In the military, you take pride into what you are signing up for…. The Air Force has core values you believe in, and that’s your day-to-day lifestyle.”