HomeNewsArticle Display

Combat controller continues Special Tactics legacy of valor

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem controls aircraft during a drug/weapons cache clearing mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Silver Star Medal was presented to Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo/released)

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem controls aircraft during a drug/weapons cache clearing mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Silver Star Medal was presented to Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo/released)

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller and Silver Star Medal recipient with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron,  salutes Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, during a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller and Silver Star Medal recipient with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, salutes Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, during a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

The 73rd Silver Star Medal awarded to an Airman since 9/11 lays on a table before a presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The Silver Star Medal is the third-highest medal awarded for gallantry against an armed enemy of the U.S. in combat and was awarded to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

The 73rd Silver Star Medal awarded to an Airman since 9/11 lays on a table before a presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The Silver Star Medal is the third-highest medal awarded for gallantry against an armed enemy of the U.S. in combat and was awarded to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Airmen and soldiers salute during the National Anthem at a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The Silver Star Medal was presented to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Airmen and soldiers salute during the National Anthem at a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The Silver Star Medal was presented to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, shakes hands with visitors following his Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, shakes hands with visitors following his Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presents Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, the Silver Star Medal at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presents Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, the Silver Star Medal at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, speaks during a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony for Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, speaks during a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony for Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Airmen and soldiers salute during the National Anthem at a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The Silve Star Medal was presented to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Airmen and soldiers salute during the National Anthem at a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The Silve Star Medal was presented to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, for using air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

The commander of the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, Lt. Col. Daniel Macgruder, speaks during a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat contoller, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

The commander of the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, Lt. Col. Daniel Macgruder, speaks during a Silver Star Medal presentation ceremony to Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat contoller, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. Thiem used air power to ensure the safety of his 100-plus man SOF element during a 14-hour firefight with no regard for his own personal safety, while deployed with U.S. Army Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Six medals were awarded to Special Tactics Airmen assigned to the 22nd Special Tactics Squdron at a presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The medals include the Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal with valor and four AF Combat Action Medals. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)
PHOTO DETAILS  /   DOWNLOAD HI-RES 10 of 11

Six medals were awarded to Special Tactics Airmen assigned to the 22nd Special Tactics Squdron at a presentation ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. The medals include the Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal with valor and four AF Combat Action Medals. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, salutes a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron after presenting him with the Bronze Star Medal with valor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. This Airman, while deployed with a U.S. Army Special Operations Forces team May 7, 2016, eliminated an insider attack in Afghanistan, when a gunman opened fire on joint partners. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)
PHOTO DETAILS  /   DOWNLOAD HI-RES 11 of 11

Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, salutes a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron after presenting him with the Bronze Star Medal with valor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nov. 16, 2016. This Airman, while deployed with a U.S. Army Special Operations Forces team May 7, 2016, eliminated an insider attack in Afghanistan, when a gunman opened fire on joint partners. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --

Their mission was to return power to the people of Kabul. But what started as a peaceful venture ended in a 14-hour firefight, with one Airman using airpower to turn the tide of the battle.

Staff Sgt. Keaton Thiem, a combat controller with the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, ventured out into enemy fire multiple times, controlled 22 aircraft delivering 3,000 pounds of munitions, rescued four joint-partner teammates from sniper fire...and now, he's receiving the Silver Star Medal.

During a ceremony Nov. 16 here, the vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Eugene Haase, presented the nation’s third highest medal for gallantry against an armed enemy of the U.S. in combat to Thiem. Thiem's actions occurred when he was deployed with a U.S. Army Special Forces team in support of Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL.

As a combat controller, Thiem is part of a highly trained special operations force who integrate air power into the special operations battlespace.

“Our Special Tactics heritage is long and distinguished,” said Haase. “Gallantry is the epitome of our Special Tactics Airmen every day, along with courage, dedication and selflessness.”

On Feb. 22 this year, Thiem and his SOF element, consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces and Afghan partnered forces, made their way to a town in Bagram Province, which was in chaos and on the verge of collapse to well-equipped fighters. Their mission --to return electricity to the locals-- would bolster the local governance in the face of an overwhelming threat of oppression and violence.

“We pushed in through the mountains....it was cold and wet, and we walked for four or five hours until we hit our initial point of resistance,” said Thiem. “The Taliban had intentionally flooded the fields, forcing us to take one specific route…so they knew we were coming and where we were coming from.”

At the first compound, the element's progress was slowed down by accurate and heavy small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The U.S.-Afghan force intercepted communications indicating the enemy was in a fortified position and using nigh-vision devices to target them.

Thiem's role began in earnest when two friendly elements were pinned down by withering machine-gun fire, impacting within inches of their position. This was the first of many times Thiem disregarded his own safety to step into enemy fire and relay coordinates to an F-16 Fighting Falcon, which dropped two 500-pound bombs within 35 and 80 meters of friendly positions in order to save his beleaguered teammates.

“Without exposing yourself [to enemy fire], there’s really no way to see who is where or what is going on,” said Thiem. “It’s mass chaos and confusion on the battlefield, and the last thing you want is fratricide.”

After eliminating those threats, friendly forces could continue on the offensive until they couldn't advance any further. When preparing to leave, insurgents  initiated another complex ambush from fortified positions-- this time concentrating heavy fire toward the main friendly formation. Shrapnel and bullets tore through the force, resulting in eight critically wounded teammates.

"It’s hard to say the fear goes away, because it’s definitely nerve-wracking," said Thiem. “Having the weight of the situation on your shoulders, disregard for yourself takes over and you do what you have to do to make sure the rest of the team gets out of there.”

In the midst of the chaotic ambush, Thiem led a recovery team into a hail of heavy enemy fire several times to rescue pinned-down Afghan commandos who were separated from the main force. Along with a small group, he made his way through a hail of gunfire in open terrain for 100 meters to locate and account for a separated friendly element before calling in additional airstrikes.

Thiem then controlled six F-16 shows of force, providing critical time and space for friendly forces to maneuver out of the immediate kill zone and scramble to relative safety. After accounting for all friendly forces, Thiem directed another danger-close air strike within 80 meters, which allowed his teammates to regroup.

As the SOF unit worked to gain accountability, four Afghan Commando partners were identified as missing. While still receiving sniper fire, Thiem orchestrated air strikes while using ISR aircraft to locate the missing commandos.

Once he located the wounded commandos, Thiem coordinated an U.S. Army AH-64 Apache escort and led a small recovery team 150 meters toward a prepared machine-gun position to recover the wounded commandos. While on the move, Thiem expertly targeted insurgents and controlled two addtional 30mm gun runs to cover the team's movement.

The team was still under fire when Thiem helped carry the wounded teammates on litters 200 meters to the main force, all the while continuing to control circling ISR aircraft and Apache gunships.

“There’s definitely a huge trust in the aircraft overhead, not just the Apaches but all the strike aircraft,” said Thiem. “It’s just a sense that they know exactly what they’re doing up there, and they know exactly what we’re doing...and they’re going to save us. The Apaches were taking rounds when we were carrying the litter…those guys are just as heroic as we were on the ground.”

One commando was still unaccounted for so the recovery team ran back out into enemy fire, but were pinned down. Without hesitation, Thiem controlled two more 30mm gun runs and eight rockets to destroy the fortified sniper position, allowing his team to reach the fourth missing Afghan Commando and return to the rally point.

Once the fighting started to die down, Thiem focused his efforts on coordinating medical evacuation lifts for injured forces while continuing to de-conflict close air support fires on several other insurgent positions. In the end, Thiem's actions played a role in suppressing a well-prepared force, supporting local Afghan governance, and returning electricity to the Afghan people

"Our Special Tactics Airmen performed when it mattered the most, on the battlefield," said Lt. Col. Daniel Magruder, commander of the 22nd STS. "Drawing on their training, they acted without regard for their own safety in order to protect their joint and coalition brothers in arms."

Three of Thiem’s U.S. Army Special Forces teammates were awarded Silver Star Medals for their valorous actions during the same battle.

“What means the most is when my teammates on the Army side reach out and congratulate me because they were there with me,” said Thiem. “I don’t even have words to explain what I feel when some of them tell me that I saved their lives…it’s humbling.”

In addition to the Silver Star Medal presentation, Haase also presented a Bronze Star with Valor and four AF Combat Action Medals to 22 STS Airmen.

One Airman, while deployed with a U.S. Army SOF team May 7, 2016, eliminated an insider attack in Afghanistan. An enemy in an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the base and began firing on partner-force soldiers. The combat controller covered one of the wounded soldiers with his own body while providing aid, and spotting the attacker, drew his weapon and killed the gunman. He then began to render aid to both wounded and coordinated a medical evacuation -- saving the lives of two SOF teammates and five Romanian soldiers.

Additionally, four other Airmen assigned to the 22nd STS were awarded Combat Action Medals, which are presented to Air Force personnel who have been in combat, having been under direct and hostile fire or physically engaging hostile forces with direct and lethal fire in connection with military operations.

"To all of the men we honor today, you are even more exceptional because you do not seek recognition," said Magruder. "Many of you did not want this ceremony but you remain consummate special operations professionals nonetheless. It is an honor to serve as your commander and the nation owes you and your loved ones a debt of gratitude."

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.

This will be the 36th Silver Star Medal awarded to a Special Tactics Airman and only the second Silver Star Medal awarded to a U.S. Airman in support of Operation FREEDOM'S SENTINEL.

“As we recognize the heroic actions of these six men, we remember 135 Special Tactics personnel are in harm’s way as I speak in 35 countries around the world,” Haase said of the Air Force’s ground special operations force. “These six men represent them --and all of us well-- as humble, competent and courageous Air Commandos.”

USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.