It was a 96-hour battle — four ambushes, 17 airstrike missions and the eventual safety of a 150-person team that led to one Special Tactics combat controller receiving the Silver Star medal, April 7, at Pope Army Airfield.
Tech. Sgt. Brian Claughsey, a combat controller assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the nation’s third highest valor medal for his role in liberating Kunduz City, Afghanistan, from the Taliban over four days, Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, 2015, while assigned to a joint special operations team.
“Brian is a consummate Special Tactics professional,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Guilmain, chief enlisted manager of the 720th Special Tactics Group. “His recognition exemplifies the ground combat skill, Airmanship expertise, and bravery that our Airmen bring to the joint special operations force.”
Claughsey’s medal contributes to his unit’s legacy of valor; the 21st STS is one of the highest decorated Air Force units in recent history in terms of individual valor awards, totaling five Air Force Cross and 10 Silver Star medals since 9/11. Of nine Air Force Crosses awarded since Sept. 11, all have been awarded to Special Tactics Airmen.
“The teams here aren’t seeking any of this recognition; it’s really about the job for them, and it’s about the service to our nation,” said Lt. Col. Stewart Parker, commander of the 21st STS.
The night before the four-day battle, then Staff Sgt. Claughsey was notified that an airfield in Kunduz province was overran by Taliban forces. That night, the joint special operations forces team successfully took back and secured the airfield, with the Afghan Army forces maintaining control of it.
The next morning, their team learned the entire city was under Taliban-control — and their mission was to liberate the city of Kunduz.
Shortly after passing the airfield they secured the night before, the convoy was ambushed from a fortified building. Claughsey suppressed enemy fire by coordinating an AC-130 gunship strike on the building.
“The AC-130 did a phenomenal job of putting those rounds down and keeping us safe and allowing us to continue on,” he said.
The convoy tripped a wire, triggering an improvised explosive device that halted the convoy. Claughsey’s vehicle was at an intersection and came under fire from two machine gun locations at close distance.
While Claughsey fought back with his personal weapon, two Special Forces Soldiers with an M-240B mounted all-terrain vehicle put themselves between Claughsey’s vehicle to protect and suppress the ambush.
“Those two Soldiers who placed themselves between us and the attack were the only reason we survived that ambush,” said Claughsey of the two who also received Silver Star medals for their actions during the firefight.
Claughsey and the team secured the Kunduz provincial chief of police compound, where they would continue to be attacked almost for four days and night — almost constantly.
At the compound, Claughsey received a call for help from an Army SF element receiving accurate and relentless mortar, grenade launcher and small arms fire.
“All that was going through my mind was that those guys needed my help and we’re all out there together as a team,” said Claughsey.
Claughsey neutralized the enemies when he maneuvered to the attack site, coordinated with F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets and controlled strafing runs from nearly 140 meters away.
“The precision of the aircraft and the confidence that we have in each other as a team, from the controller on the ground and the aircrew ... we have a lot of faith in each other and they certainly didn’t let us down out there,” said Claughsey.
“I was exhausted. It was a four-day firefight; however, at a certain point, your training kicks in and takes over,” said Claughsey.
Despite rounds impacting less than a meter away, Claughsey controlled two, danger-close, 500-pound bombs within 185 meters of friendly fighting positions, effectively stopping the onslaught of enemy forces on the compound — and ending the fight to liberate Kunduz.
Claughsey coordinated 17 separate close air support engagements, with no civilian or friendly casualties, ensuring the safety of the 36 U.S. Army SF personnel and 110 Afghan partner forces.
“I have absolutely no doubt that the (SF team) would have taken causalities and would not have successful if not for Brian on this mission,” said the Army SF ground force commander in an eyewitness statement about that mission.
For Claughsey, it isn’t about the recognition; it is about doing his job, and doing it well.
“To hear children playing in the street and people moving back into our homes, to know that we were successful and these people were back in their homes, it was an incredible feeling,” said Claughsey.