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Special tactics officer receives AF Cross

Apr. 13, 2012 - 10:20AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 13, 2012 - 10:20AM  |  
Air Force Cross Ceremony---Full Ceremony
Air Force Cross Ceremony---Full Ceremony: Complete video coverage of Air Force Cross Ceremony held April 12, 2012 at the Pentagon Hall of Heros. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz presented Capt.
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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz salutes after presenting the Air Force Cross to Capt. Barry F. Crawford Jr. during a ceremony April 12 at the Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon. (Thomas Brown / Staff)

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A higher power had to be watching over the team of Afghan commandos and U.S. military special operators as they made their way into a village near Laghman province, Afghanistan, before dawn May 4, 2010.

That's the only way Capt. Barry F. Crawford Jr., a special tactics officer, can explain how he and the rest of his band of brothers survived 14 hours of hell that killed two Afghan members of the team and wounded three other Afghans. No American military members were killed in the firefight that exposed many of the troops, particularly Crawford, to direct small-arms fire.

"It was completely random," he said. "There were so many close calls that when we all got back, we realized that someone higher than us was looking over our shoulder that day. The situation was just something you can't explain."

For Crawford's heroic actions that day, he has become the third living recipient since Sept. 11, 2001, of the Air Force Cross the highest recognition an airman can receive outside of the Medal of Honor. He also was awarded a Purple Heart for a separate incident a month later.

In recollecting that day's events, Crawford said the Afghan commandos and U.S. special operations forces had been sent to a village in mountains east of Kabul.

The team was preparing to conduct a helicopter infiltration because the village was known to have Taliban sympathies. The plan was to send the commandos and U.S. troops in to put a friendly face on the mission. They planned to interact with the locals and let them know the Afghan government was taking charge of the country and that they no longer needed to rely on the Taliban, Crawford said.

But the Taliban and village supporters had a different plan. They knew the team was coming and they were going to attack as soon as the sun came up at least that's what intercepted radio chatter indicated was going to go down. They were alerted to expect resistance from about 10 to 15 insurgents.

The intelligence was on target with everything except the size of the resistance. The team would later learn that it had faced down nearly 10 times that number of insurgents, as reinforcements arrived throughout the battle.

Crawford said at daybreak they began to make their way through the village looking for weapons. They noticed that the women and children were conspicuously absent. They should have been everywhere because it was time for prayer, he said. That set off alarms.

Almost immediately, one of the team's elements came under small-arms fire from multiple places in the high ground surrounding the village. As the sun rose higher, the rest of the team was soon facing the same.

"Every element was under continuous enemy fire from multiple positions," Crawford said. "The enemy was completely around us."

‘You just react'

In that moment, Crawford who was then a decorated officer with six years of service under his belt, including previous combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan said his thoughts about what was unfolding switched off, and the years of experience as a special tactics officer kicked in.

"You just react," he said. "It's muscle memory and that's why we train like we fight, so when we are put in those situations, we don't have time to think because there are lives on the line."

With two of his Afghan team members dead and three suffering life-threatening injuries, Crawford knew the men had to be evacuated or there would be more deaths, but it was going to be difficult getting helicopters into the area.

Though air support was nearby, the space was not ideal for landing a helicopter. It also didn't help that continuous enemy fire from every direction made it impossible to properly mark a landing zone.

So Crawford did the only thing he could. He ran into the open so that the helicopter pilot could see him and the landing location and remained exposed to guide the pilot in while insurgents continued to rain bullets. They managed to shoot off one of his radio antennas just a few inches from his face.

He didn't let the fact that he was nearly killed stop him from grabbing his assault rifle and his backup radio. He bound across open terrain while calling in a strafe attack and managed to fire on the enemy so that the aid and litter teams could move closer to the men who had been killed.

The medical evacuation team secured four of the five casualties before it was pinned down by enemy fire, and the evacuation helicopter took direct hits that forced it to leave before the last Afghan soldier could be retrieved.

Crawford knew that if he didn't do something, the remaining wounded Afghan soldier and the Army medic attending him might die, so he moved the team farther and coordinated an air-to-ground attack plan that integrated AH-64s and F-15s and included strafing runs along with 500- and 2,000-pound bomb and Hellfire missile strikes. He also continued to engage the enemy with his assault rifle. Crawford directed more than 33 aircraft and coordinated more than 40 airstrikes before the battle was finished.

‘Utterly impressed'

At Thursday's ceremony at the Pentagon honoring Crawford, where Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pinned Crawford with both the Air Force Cross and the Purple Heart, the service's top officer said the captain repeatedly disregarded his own safety to assist his U.S. and Afghan teammates and expertly employed air power to turn the tide of the battle.

"It is not hard to be utterly impressed by his bravery and inspired by his selflessness," Schwartz said.

Crawford, who has transitioned into the Maryland National Guard's 104th Fighter Squadron and is a candidate for undergraduate pilot training to fly A-10s, said that when he learned that he would receive the prestigious award, he thought someone was playing a joke on him.

"Once it was confirmed that this was taking place [I was] deeply honored, and humbled, just by the gravity of the award," he said. "So many of the people that I looked up to … that were awarded this … earned it with their blood."

Army Staff Sgt. Grant Derrick, a senior Special Forces medic who helped write the citation for both of Crawford's awards, said Crawford was a member of the team from the very beginning and his actions saved his life that day.

"The reason why a lot of us came back that day is because of Capt. Crawford especially me," he said. "I was pinned down with the second casualty and Barry was the reason they were able to get me and him."

Tech. Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, the">most recent recipient of the Air Force Cross, was stationed with Crawford in England and the men served in the same squadron at Pope Field, N.C. He said it was an honor to be in the same category as Crawford, whom he said was an all-around team player and well-respected by his enlisted men.

"I knew that he had had a pretty rough deployment … where he'd seen a lot of action," Gutierrez said. "When this came out, I was extremely pleased and extremely thankful that the Air Force is looking at all individuals in the fight and going through with awards of people of this caliber. A lot of our guys, particularly my junior enlisted, really look up to Capt. Crawford and it is a distinct honor to be in the same category with him."

Col. Robert Armfield, 720th Special Tactics Group Commander, said the special tactics community was proud of Crawford. Armfield said the fact that the last two Air Force Cross recipients came out of the community says a lot about how effective that force is on the battlefield. But he said it's come at high cost for the community of about 1,500 airmen. They've lost 17 members since 9/11 and more than 100 have been critically wounded.

"Yet we still have young men and young women join our ranks, put themselves in harm's way and still continue to accomplish the mission," he said. "That's what makes me most proud.

Crawford said that though the medal is an individual decoration, he shares the honor with the Afghan and American men who fought together that day some of whom are still in Afghanistan.

"I wouldn't be here today if my special forces' teammates and the Afghan commandos that were fighting didn't go above and beyond for that 14 hours," he said. "We counted on each other. We had to because our lives were on the line.

"They're heroes in my eyes and that's the only reason I'm here right now."

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