One thousand feet into a 5-kilometer hike toward a target deep in a dangerous part of Afghanistan’s Paktia Province, Master Sgt. Thomas Case realized something was wrong. “Sir, we’re not where we’re supposed to be,” the tactical air control party NCO told his special operations task force commander after he looked down at his wrist GPS.
It proved to be a fortunate wrong turn for Case and the assault force.
“It was kind of a godsend that we ended up taking the wrong path because we came to find out that all of the enemy combatants up there had heavy weaponry oriented toward the valley where we were going to be operating,” Case said. “It was kind of like we were supposed to walk up there and distract them from what was going on below, so to speak.”
Case, then assigned to the 17th Air Support Operations Squadron, now the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, at Fort Benning, Ga., was attached to an Army Ranger team on an overnight mission to capture a high-level target and destroy an insurgent training camp high in the mountains. Suddenly, shots began to rain down on them, and the platoon was soon pinned down by enemy fire from higher ground 15 meters from their position. Machine-gun fire impacted trees and ground within 2 feet of Case as he tried to determine the insurgents’ position to call in air support. However, the wires on his radio were severed in the attack, and Case couldn’t communicate with supporting aircraft that included an AC-130 gunship and F-15 Eagles.
For his actions on the June 16-17, 2009, mission, Case received the oak leaf cluster to the Silver Star in a ceremony at Pope Army Air Field, N.C., where he is now stationed as the operations superintendent for the 18th Air Support Operations Group.
In addition to becoming one of only three Airmen with two Silver Stars, Case also became the seventh military member since 9/11 to have that distinction, except for classified medals awarded to Navy SEALs. He is also the only TAC-P in the Air Force with a second Silver Star. Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas and Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell, the other two Airmen with two Silver Stars, were both combat controllers.
“As a young staff sergeant receiving (the Silver Star), I thought it was pretty cool, but you tend to think it’s about me,” Case said. “Then, as you get a little more mature and you realize you’ve been nominated for a second one that’s been approved by both the Air Force and the Army, you realize you really want this one to be more about the career field, and let the civilian population understand that it’s not just Marines and Soldiers. There are Airmen, too, who are fighting, sometimes right next to our Army brothers.”
Since his ceremony, Case has told and read his story countless times. He can close his eyes and take himself back to the darkness in the mountainous terrain of the Khost-Gardez Pass as the insurgents tried to close in on their position.
Once he realized his radio wires were damaged, Case held them together as he made the call to request immediate air support. However, the AC-130 needed a couple of minutes to get into position, and Case learned support was still five minutes away. As enemy fire landed within feet of Case and whirled past his head, he stood up to lay down suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle and led five friendly assault force enablers, who were tactical psychological operations, cultural support team and combat camera members, to move behind cover.
As the fire continued to land within feet of his position, Case again stood to make sure the AC-130 hit the correct target area. He then saw two enemy fighters armed with AK-47 assault rifles headed down the hill and firing at him and the ground force commander.
As the insurgents closed within 15 meters of Case and the ground force commander, the joint terminal attack controller stepped between them and his commander. Case then shot dead both insurgents, who turned out to be heavily trained foreign fighters, with his M-4.
“I didn’t think too much about it,” he said. “I was just trying to make sure our GFC could do his job and move his guys and know where his platoon leader was. I’d been around long enough to understand that the GFC is a pretty important guy, and it’s our job as JTACs to be attached to that guy at the hip to make sure he’s making sound decisions in regards to airpower.”
As the battle raged on, the enemy moved to higher terrain and threw grenades down the mountain slope at the platoon. One grenade exploded about 10 meters from Case, damaging his helmet and wounding two Rangers. Case directed six more “danger close” strikes, which means friendly forces are within range of being harmed by incoming ordnance, and then realized he needed to link with the lead element to see the entrenched enemy position.
With zero visibility because of dust and haze from the air strikes and still under enemy fire, Case climbed 50 meters up a 60-degree embankment to reach the fire team leader. Once there, he repaired his radio and directed four AC-130 strikes on three enemy combatants about 100 meters away. A few minutes later, two more insurgents flanked his position within 7 meters in a clump of trees. Case threw a grenade that killed one of them and shot the other insurgent dead.
The 2009 mission happened six years after Case received his first Silver Star for actions during the Global War on Terror between March 31 and April 5, 2003. He was a staff sergeant aligned with Company B, 3rd Ranger Battalion in Iraq, tasked with directing combat aircraft. The company had been receiving heavy-direct and small-arms fire, anti-aircraft cannon, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar and artillery fire. Case directed air strikes while firing his personal weapon at enemy within 30 meters of his position. At one point, Case controlled 14 aircraft and was responsible for more than 300 enemy casualties and the destruction of 29 tanks, three heavy cargo trucks, nine S-60 anti-mortars, 10 enemy boats and helped ensure the success and safety of 120 Army Rangers.
Maybe it’s at least partly due to the fact that 14 of his 16 deployments were in support of their missions, but Case has always felt a special bond with Army Rangers.
“I have a very soft spot in my heart for the Army Rangers,” he said. “We’re talking about guys who, in your off-duty time, you’re with. Your friends, wives and kids are together. You’re barbecuing together, you’re training together and you’re deploying together. So there is a bond there, and it goes beyond the color of your uniform or what your name tape says. I talk to a lot of those guys to this very day.”
Some of them were at his award ceremony at Polk Field, and one Ranger, the first sergeant on the Afghanistan mission, paid Case one of the highest compliments a JTAC can receive before he returned home from the deployment.
“‘Tom, I just want you to know that what you did on this rotation was really great, and we appreciate the fact that you were here with us. There’s not a Ranger here who can out-Ranger you, and you’re in the Air Force.’
“They’re always going to remind you that you are in the Air Force,” Case said, laughing. “But it was a really big compliment, and one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever gotten.”
A few days after receiving his second Silver Star, Case was back in his office, telling his story yet again. He was also spreading the lust for life he’s cultivated from experiences like the one in the Khost-Gardez Pass on his 16 deployments.
“I look at every day as a blessing,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I think it drives our first sergeant nuts here because I tell her that every day. Some days she asks me why I’m still smiling, and I say because it’s a blessing to be here. I don’t attribute that to any specific life-changing event. I honestly think that every day is a blessing. I like life.”