News: Washington Air Guardsman earns bronze star with ‘V’ for seven-hour firefight
Story by Tech. Sgt. Johnathon Orrell
OXON HILL, Md. -- For most people, the worst thing that can happen during a typical work day is enduring a bad commute -- or maybe it’s dealing with the boss or meeting those pesky deadlines.
For seven hours on May 24, 2009, Air Force Staff Sgt. Kenneth I. Walker III, a tactical air control party member with the 194th Regional Support Wing of the Washington Air National Guard, engaged Taliban forces in a fight for his life.
“We had just arrived at a key leader engagement west of the Pesh Valley next to Forward Operating Base Blessing,” said Walker. “This was an area that no troops had been to yet so the area was unstable.
“We went in to try and provide aid and assistance against the Taliban forces.”
During the meeting, the conversation became heated, and the village leader informed Walker and Airman Staff Sgt. John Robertson, the mission’s Joint Terminal Attack Controller, that they would have to leave because the village could not keep them safe.
On their way back to the command area, the two Airmen realized that the shooting had already started.
“It came from everywhere, it was pretty intense,” Walker said. “I was monitoring Army frequencies’ listening to the ground fight and John [Robertson] was controlling all of the air as I was passing information to him.”
At that point, Walker and Robertson, who as TACPs are responsible for advising ground forces on aircraft employment and capabilities, were engaged by the enemy on the ground.
“Apparently, I was sticking out a little too far from this building and as John was pulling me back two enemy soldiers appeared to my right,” he said. “They had shot at me and missed me over my shoulder striking the wall next to me peppering my face, shoulder and hand with debris.”
As Robertson was pulling Walker to safety, he was left with his weapon in his right hand which was facing away from the enemy.
Walker had to think fast and act faster. “I switched my weapon to my left hand and engaged both of [the enemy soldiers] and killed them both,” he said.
After regrouping, Walker and Robertson coordinated an air-strike on the area.
“We dropped bombs on the DShK [an anti-aircraft machine gun] fighting position that was engaging the first group of troops with us,” Walker said. “John was able to hit the DShK with two Mark 82s [an unguided general purpose bomb] and kill between five to eight enemy soldiers and destroyed the DShK.”
During the fight, communication between the ground commander and the JTAC was severed by the noise of the close contact fighting, which forced the ground commander to join Walker and Robertson.
Walker provided a distraction, which allowed the ground commander to re-locate. He directed fire towards him while returning fire on the enemy, allowing the commander to cross safely.
With the ground commander and the JTAC back in communication with each other more aerial attacks were directed at the enemy.
With the fight raging on, more enemy forces were making their way towards Walker’s position.
“They … weren’t stopping,” he said. Even though we were engaging … they were still shooting at us.”
Helicopters were called in to assist ground forces with the enemy insurgents, but they had to be shown where they should attack.
“In order to utilize the aircraft as fast as possible, we needed to get their eyes on the target,” Walker said. “We really couldn’t ‘talk’ them into what was going on, so I jumped onto the Army 240 [howitzer] and marked the target for the helos. It was the first time I had ever fired that weapon.”
After holding back the ground assault with the assistance of the helicopters’ air attack, the enemy attack started to slow down and the decision was made to return back to the mine resistant ambush protected vehicles.
“Everybody was feeling comfortable. John took his ruck off and noticed that his only means of communicating with aircraft, his radio, had its antennae snapped off, so his radio was useless,” Walker said.
Then they were engaged by regrouped enemy forces. “Everybody took off up the mountain, and I was stuck right in the open,” said Walker. “All I did was hunker down as best as I could, trying to use rocks that were smaller than me as a shield.”
Even as he was exposed, Walker attempted to hold off the enemy.
“I provided some covering fire for the ground commander and the battalion commander to allow them to proceed up the mountain ridge to engage the enemy within hand grenade range,” he said. “That’s how close the enemy was to us.
“John then yelled to me, ‘come on up when you feel safe,’ but I couldn’t move, so he provided covering fire and I made it safely up to him,” said Walker.
At that time, Walker gave his working radio to Robertson, but the battery was dead. So, he went back down the mountain to get an operational radio to allow them to control the aircraft.
“I ran all the way back to where the engagement started to get the only working radio that we had,” Walker said.
When he reached the radio in the midst of heavy enemy fire, he grabbed the first thing he could reach. It wasn’t until he returned back to Robertson that he realized it wasn’t the radio.
“I came back and handed John just a hand mic … the entire hand mic had snapped off the radio, so I went back a second time and grabbed the radio, still under fire as John returned suppressive fire,” Walker said.
The Army element was able to engage the enemy, and Walker was able to speak with the helicopter and coordinate further engagement of enemy forces.
After the coordination of air strikes through Walker, the enemy was suppressed enough for Walker’s group to get back to safety.
“That was a seven-hour firefight, and if John [Robertson] wasn’t there I don’t think I’d be here today,” he said.
On Sept. 14, the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz presented Walker with the bronze star with valor award during the Air Force Association Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition here at National Harbor.
Walker thanked his fellow TACPs, his commanders and his supportive family.
“I had never thought I would be in a category like this. I was just doing my job, but my command staff thought otherwise,” he said. “It was very humbling for me. I almost lost it when I was thanking everyone. It took everything I had to hold back my emotion.”