Sgt. Daniel Keller, a combat controller in the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, received the Air Force Cross from Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Sept. 13. The Air Force Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor among USAF military decorations.
Keller earned the decoration for his actions on Aug. 16, 2017, when he was a joint terminal attack controller in Afghanistan. Then a staff sergeant, Keller was part of a mission in Nangarhar province to clear the area of some 350 Islamic State group fighters. After 15 hours of sustained battle, the assault force was hit by an improvised explosive device that detonated inside a house, instantly killing four troops and wounding 31 others. Only 10 feet from the blast, Keller suffered a traumatic brain injury, but nonetheless orchestrated airstrikes on the opposing force while simultaneously repelling them with his M4 rifle. The enemy was less than 150 meters away at the time.
He then helped 13 wounded troops reach a landing zone for medical evacuation, all the while taking enemy fire. When the medevac helicopters couldn’t find the landing zone, Keller ran into the open to flag them down, “exposing himself to enemy fire in order to marshal in both aircraft and aid in loading casualties,” according to the citation.
After the wounded were removed and as remaining US forces were leaving the area, Keller volunteered to make the 2.5-kilometer walk back to a combat outpost, escorting other wounded troops. Along the way, he fought off a three-sided enemy attack by returning fire and passing information to another JTAC. When he finally reached the outpost, Keller was evacuated for medical treatment.
SSgt. Pete Dinich, an Active-Duty pararescueman assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing, was decorated with the Silver Star for the same operation on Sept. 6.