RAF MILDENHALL, UNITED KINGDOM
RAF MILDENHALL, England - "First There," a motto combat controllers bellow during their two-year training pipeline, and later affirm in blood, sweat and sacrifice on the most forward-deployed and dangerous battlefields as they pave the way for other forces to follow.
As a member of the most highly trained special operations force in the U.S. military, Tech. Sgt. Ted Hofknecht, 321st Special Tactics Squadron, upheld the meaning of that motto in three notable combat engagements in remote areas of Afghanistan, and was honored at the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs awards dinner in Washington, D.C., Nov. 7.
Hofknecht and five other service members were selected by the top uniformed officers in the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command to represent their respective service at the dinner, and earned the JINSA Grateful Nation Award.
The JINSA Grateful Nation Award was established in 2003 and only six service members are recognized with that award annually for superior conduct in the War on Terrorism.
Hofknecht was attached to an elite Army Green Beret unit tasked with providing foreign internal defense to NATO International Security Assistance Force Service members operating in Afghanistan, and distinguished himself as a joint terminal attack controller from September 2010 through February 2011.
"Our main mission was to mentor traditional coalition soldiers, who in turn advised the Afghan National Security Forces and local police," said Hofknecht, a 28-year-old combat controller, or CCT, from Crossville, Tenn.
In the mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan, Hofknecht utilized airpower and soldiering skills in two notable troops-in-contact situations, where his efforts were vital in neutralizing insurgent attacks.
On numerous occasions, the controller repelled point-blank enemy attacks with his M4 rifle, controlled close-air support, directed medical evacuations and personally saved the lives of four coalition soldiers.
For his actions during the six-month deployment, Hofknecht was awarded a bronze star medal. He also earned a bronze star with valor for heroism during a major battle Dec. 7, 2010.
A tale of heroism:
Starting like most other days, Hofknecht awoke to snow falling upon the makeshift buildings at his combat outpost, high in the mountains above the Tagab Valley in Kapisa province, Afghanistan.
It was an utterly serene December morning, he said. But, that was all about to change.
Hofknecht and a combined team of coalition and ANSF soldiers geared up for a patrol toward an insurgent-infested village, where they hoped to establish new observation posts at a location key to disrupt regional Taliban activity and impede their gateway to Kabul.
The CCT's job was to control air assets and provide CAS for coalition efforts.
"The village our team headed toward was at the foot of a steep mountain that joined two valleys," said Hofknecht, a 10-year Air Force veteran. "To establish an OP on that mountain would give the coalition overwatch of the entire area. The Taliban knew how important that mountain was and were prepared to do whatever it took to maintain control over it."
As the combined force approached their target area, they split into separate teams. Their team leaders, consisting of three ISAF officers and an Afghan leader took one team toward a flank on the mountain. Meanwhile, one assault team sought to secure the village and the other prepared for a frontal assault of the mountain.
Hofknecht was on the team securing the village and his squad quickly came under contact as insurgents assaulted the coalition forces with small-arms and machine gun fire.
As Hofknecht's team returned fire on the insurgents near them, the officers' team struck an improvised explosive device on the ridge of the mountain. An outnumbering insurgent force then ambushed them.
"The enemy was about 150 meters away and we were in heavy vegetation, which took away some of our tactical advantage when using CAS," said Hofknecht, who was engaged in a fierce firefight while directing CAS to his comrades' location, who were suffering a brutal assault after already suffering casualties in the IED blast.
The situation began to look a bit brighter as two U.S. Army helicopters acknowledged they were in route.
However, that brightness soon faded.
"We ended up getting a pair of Kiowa helicopters, but one had a broken gun switch and couldn't expend any ordnance," said Hofknecht.
Knowing the team that hit the IED was in bad shape and had casualties needing aeromedical evacuation, Hofknecht and his team hastily maneuvered through an ongoing brutal enemy ambush to assist the casualties.
"The broken Kiowa expended its rockets and then had to return to a nearby [forward operating base] and attempted to fix their weapon systems," said Hofknecht. "We kept fighting with what weapons we had."
When Hofknecht arrived on the mountain ridge, he found one ISAF captain dead, the Afghan leader and other members of the element wounded. Reacting quickly, Hofknecht and a fellow Green Beret carried the Afghan leader about a kilometer and began to load him and other casualties into one remaining operational vehicle, and prepared to get them to an aeromedical evacuation site.
The primary landing zone (LZ) was under intense fire so the casualties had to be moved to an alternate LZ, which was a short drive away.
Splitting into two teams, Hofknecht sped off toward the LZ while the remaining forces fought on to secure the mountain.
As the small convoy pushed toward the LZ, a team of Taliban set up a trap.
"We left with only my Green Beret buddy, myself, the wounded and dead, and had no working crew-serve weapon on board, so pretty much had two M4s to defend ourselves with," said Hofknecht. "At first we had a small Afghan security detail but they soon had to return to the fight which left just the two of us to get our casualties to that LZ."
All of a sudden, a hail of rounds began hitting the truck. When Hofknecht looked back, he found a coordinated ambush about 25 meters from his position.
The broken Kiowa flew overhead to provide air support for the casualties, saw the ambush happening from above and responded.
"I looked up and saw the Kiowa above us, and the co-pilot was hanging out of the side of the helicopter engaging the enemy with his M4," said Hofknecht. "It was a sight I'll never forget."
As his team crested a ridge top, Hofknecht said he could see sparkles from across the entire valley where hundreds of insurgents were firing at the circling Kiowa.
"It was intense. They would intermittently fire at our CAS, then shift fire to us, then back to the helicopter," said Hofknecht. "It went back and forth like that for a long time, but our CAS never budged. They kept taking a brunt of the incoming fire and helping suppress our ambush."
The five-hour battle ended with coalition and insurgent casualties, but the Taliban suffered far more losses than the combined coalition and ANSF team, said Hofknecht.
"It was all sketchy at that time, but we fought our best with what we had," said Hofknecht. "We put pressure on the Taliban and got our jobs done."
Hofknecht was involved in two more significant TICs during his deployment and, at one point, was attacked at point-blank range in an alley with no cover.
"I was pretty much forced to move forward and try to close on the shooter while returning fire with no cover," said Hofknecht. "My training is the only thing that kept me alive at that point, because my mind had already checked out, it seemed."
For Hofknecht, losing some of his close friends during different firefights elsewhere in Afghanistan stays with him daily and has forever changed his life.
Before joining the ranks of the elite CCT, Hofknecht spent the first six years of his Air Force career as a mechanic, which was challenging but didn't afford him the opportunity to deploy to the front lines, he said. With an unrelenting yearning to be "first there," the controller can't wait for his next combat tour.
"Being a CCT and the mixed missions we embark on really intrigues me," said Hofknecht. "I'm honored by the JINSA Award and bronze stars, but I don't do what I do for medals or awards. My fellow controllers are my family, my brothers. I wouldn't choose any other way to live."
||RAF MILDENHALL, GB
This work, RAF Mildenhall combat controller earns Grateful Nation Award, by SMSgt Kevin Wallace, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.