Bio: Rhyner, Sgt. Zachary J. #2 (2009)
Poster: R. Lipprandt
Surnames: Maurer, Martin, Rhyner, Walton, Chapman
----Source: The Wausau Daily Herald (Wausau, Marathon Co., WI), Thursday, March 5, 2009, Online Edition
Sgt. from Medford awarded medal for valor
By KEVIN MAURER
Associated Press Writer - March 4, 2009
POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. - From flat on his back, Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner could see just enough of the valley to guide the F-15s flying thousands of feet above him in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Machine gun rounds smashed into rocks nearby and showered him with debris, and a bullet gorged a chunk of his thigh. Yet he calmly radioed pilots his "nine-line" - the formatted message needed to call in the strike. His artery wasn't hit. He would be fine, he thought, as long as insurgents didn't overrun his team trapped atop a 60 foot cliff.
For the next six hours, after the fighter jets couldn't push back insurgents, Rhyner stayed with an Army Special Forces team and a few dozen Afghan commandos to fight hundreds of insurgents in Shok Valley, considered a sanctuary for the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group.
Rhyner alone called in more than 150 rockets, a dozen 500-pound bombs, nine Hellfire missiles and one 2,000-pound bomb in a heroic battle that earned the 22-year-old Wisconsin native the Air Force Cross, the second highest medal for valor in the Air Force.
Commanders said his ability to stay calm during the fight last April and call in accurate airstrikes likely made the difference between victory and defeat - and most certainly saved his life and the lives of his teammates and Afghan allies.
Rhyner, from Medford, Wis., and assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, will be awarded the honor March 10.
"I am surprised that I am receiving the Air Force Cross seeing that the last two recipients were awarded them posthumously," he told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
Silver Stars, the Army's third-highest award for combat valor, were awarded to 10 Special Forces soldiers last year for the same battle.
The mission unfolded April 6 as three Special Forces teams and a company of Afghan commandos moved up a narrow cliff-side path to a village of thick-walled mud buildings.
Apache attack helicopters flying overhead saw insurgents running to fighting positions. In an instant, the surrounding mountains and buildings erupted in an ambush, Rhyner said. More than 200 fighters opened up with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47s, according to Army estimates.
One of the team's interpreters fell to the ground with a head wound, while another bullet hit Rhyner's leg. The mission commander, Army Capt. Kyle Walton, ordered his men to fall back and told Rhyner to start bombing the houses where the insurgents were hiding.
"We had to pull the wounded guys and get behind as much cover as we can. But when we did that, we trapped ourselves on the cliff," Rhyner said.
Using the helicopter to mark the bigger targets, Rhyner alternated between firing his rifle at insurgents and rolling onto his back to communicate with the jet and helicopters pilots circling above that bombarded the area with a constant cycle of rockets, bombs and strafing runs.
Trapped on the cliff and outnumbered, half of the team was wounded, including four critically. Walton decided to pull back. Every time a bomb dropped, there was a lull in fire and the team decided to move between blasts.
One of Rhyner's final targets was a large house that overlooked the cliff where the team was trapped. Walton feared the insurgents might toss grenades down on them, so he ordered Rhyner to destroy it. Low on ammunition, the F-15s had only a 2,000-pound bomb - four times larger than the other bombs.
"What was going through my head was we don't have another option," Rhyner said. "We are still taking fire. We need it to stop. Bringing that in is the only option to getting the wounded guys out of there."
The bomb dropped and leveled the house, sending a massive cloud of dust and debris so thick Rhyner couldn't see more than a few inches in front of him.
"I think that was the moment when the insurgents we were fighting called time-out," Rhyner said.
It allowed the team to escape to the valley floor and into rescue helicopters.
The team and Afghan commandos saw two of their comrades killed and 15 wounded. Army officials estimate up to 200 insurgents died.
Lt. Col. Mike Martin, Rhyner's commander, said there was nothing but heroism on the cliff.
"Walton just had to give him his intent: Destroy all those buildings," Martin said. "(Rhyner) transformed the vague commander's intent and applied that (air) power against it. That is what saved their lives."
----Source: Military News, Thursday, February 27, 2009, Online Edition
Airman to Receive Air Force Cross
Knight Ridder/Tribune, February 27, 2009
A Pope Air Force Base, N.C., combat controller is scheduled to receive the Air Force's second highest award for valor on March 10 in a ceremony at the Pentagon.
Staff Sgt. Zachary J. Rhyner will receive the Air Force Cross for his actions on April 6 in the Shok Valley in Afghanistan. Although shot in the left leg, he called in airstrikes, fired his M-4 rifle at the enemy and helped move other wounded people down a cliff.
Rhyner is assigned to the Air Force Special Operations Command's 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope. At the time of the incident, Rhyner was a senior airman who had completed training less than a year earlier.
Combat controllers train for two years at Pope and elsewhere to do mostly covert missions in hostile territory. The "battlefield airmen" can parachute or infiltrate into enemy territory to set up drop zones, do air-traffic control or call in aircraft to shoot or drop bombs on the enemy.
They often work on an Army Special Forces or Navy SEAL team and fight alongside soldiers and sailors while summoning Air Force firepower from overhead. The aircraft often are firing are "friendly" forces on the ground.
Rhyner is credited with saving his team from being overrun twice in a 6-hour battle in the Shok Valley. Members of A-Team 3336 from Fort Bragg's 3rd Special Forces Group received 10 Silver Stars, the Army's third highest award for combat valor, for their actions in that engagement.
About 100 Special Forces and Afghan soldiers each were carrying more than 60 pounds of equipment when they jumped from helicopters onto icy, jagged rocks and waist-deep running water in 30-degree temperatures to assault a terrorist stronghold in Afghanistan. Their objective was at the top of the mountains surrounding the valley.
They were ambushed by 200 enemy fighters, and Rhyner was shot within the first 15 minutes, according to an account from the Air Force Special Operations Command. The team came under fire from all directions from snipers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Capt. Kyle Walton, the Special Forces team leader, treated Rhyner for his injuries as the Airman called in Apache attack helicopters.
Rhyner called in 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, 12 500-pound bombs and a 2,000-pound bomb, Air Force officials said.
Air Force officials estimate that 40 enemy were killed and 100 wounded in the engagement.
Rhyner is the second Pope airmen to receive the award since Sept.11, 2001. Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, also a combat controller, posthumously received the Air Force Cross for heroism under fire on March 4, 2002, near Gardez in the eastern highlands of Afghanistan.
In 2005, The Military Sealift Command named a cargo ship the MV T Sgt. John A. Chapman in honor of the ''battlefield Airman'' in a ceremony at Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal.
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