The ammunition supply was desperately low, and the troops were in grave danger of running out.
On that day in Afghanistan last year, Tech. Sgt. Matthew McKenna, a U.S. Air Force combat controller from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, prevented what could have been several casualties by orchestrating an aerial resupply to his comrades in two locations.
Throughout 13 hours of battle, McKenna helped his team clear 2 kilometers of terrain, repel three enemy counterattacks and contribute to 103 enemies killed in action.
On Monday, McKenna, 32, was awarded the Silver Star — the nation’s third-highest decoration for valor — for his actions on Sept. 12, 2013.
The Southern California native also received a Bronze Star for his cumulative work calling in more than 400 aircraft on enemy positions while deployed to Afghanistan from July 2013 to January 2014.
He was among six members of the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron who received special recognition Monday at JBLM for their efforts in the war.
McKenna joins 30 other Special Tactics airmen to receive a Silver Star since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He’s the fourth member of his JBLM squadron to be awarded the medal.
“It’s humbling, honestly, to be here with teammates and family. We didn’t have anyone hurt, and I’m happy I was able to do my job,” he said.
The job of a combat controller is to go undetected into hostile environments to establish assault zones for Air Force crews to bring in heavy firepower.
It is among the most dangerous jobs for U.S. forces behind enemy lines.
But McKenna said he’d much prefer to fight in a combat situation than stand on a stage receiving an award.
A Silver Star citation, which was read aloud at Monday’s ceremony, described how he put himself in danger while insurgents closed in on U.S. and Afghan special operations forces who faced a “catastrophic ambush” in a village on a valley floor.
“On several occasions, with no regard for his personal safety, Sgt. McKenna moved from cover, exposing himself to withering machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire to locate friendly elements trapped by enemy fire,” the citation says.
“He then executed control of danger close precision strikes from airborne assets.”
Talking to a News Tribune reporter Monday, McKenna described his actions more modestly.
“Time goes by fast, and I’m making sure they’re looking out for me and I’m looking out for them,” said McKenna, who has deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.
Airmen such as McKenna are a rare breed, said Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.
“He put himself in harm’s way when he could have ducked behind a rock,” Heithold said.
Combat controllers go through intensive tactical training for two years. Very few people have the mental and physical capabilities to do this kind of work, he said.
“I couldn’t do what they do, not even when I was 19 or 20,” Heithold said. “They sacrifice a tremendous amount.”
McKenna said he owes his success to the resiliency training he received. Pausing to take a breath and refocusing can be the difference between making a panicked or a calm decision, he said.
McKenna is the third generation of his family to wear a military uniform.
“It’s part of my life,” he said, “I joined Special Tactics because I wanted a challenge. There’s something new every day, from jumping out of airplanes to diving into lakes.”
Shelby Rowe: 253-597-8672