The Air Force Cross is the highest service specific award an Airman can receive, and the second highest military decoration for valor awarded by the United States.  It represents gallantry in action against enemies of our nation, but in many ways, it represents much more.  Being awarded the Air Force Cross places airmen in a class all their own; as representatives of the very best traits a serviceman can possess: courage, strength, and a willingness to sacrifice not only for our great nation, but for the men and women in uniform that stand beside them.

Only ten airmen in the past forty years have been the recipient of the Air Force Cross, with none more deserving than Staff Sergeant Chris Baradat and Master Sergeant Keary Miller.

On Thursday afternoon, beneath blue skies and before a crowd of service men, women and their families, Staff Sergeant Baradat and Master Sergeant Miller were presented this high honor for incredible acts of bravery that not only resulted in killing enemy combatants, but in saving the lives of dozens of soldiers and airmen.  Each American life saved by these two heroic men represents much more than a single day of valor in Afghanistan; they represent a lifetime of days the men they saved can now spend serving our nation, loving their families, and enjoying the very freedoms they fought to defend.  Through their actions, Baradat and Miller demonstrated that the highest achievement an American service member can accomplish is not always to kill an enemy, but rather, it’s often to save the men and women that fight alongside them.

Colonel Mike Martin welcomed attendees to the ceremony, which served as the first ever to see two Airmen receive the coveted honor of the Air Force Cross.  The peaceful day and respectful ceremony meant to commemorate these men’s actions served as a stark contrast against the circumstances that led them there.  From the well-kept fields of Pensacola, Florida, one might struggle to picture the snowy mountains of Afghanistan that saw then Tech Sergeant Miller running through the snow to the aid of fallen soldiers under heavy enemy fire, or the narrow canyon Staff Sergeant Baradat chose to willingly brave outside the protective armor of his vehicle in order to accurately direct the air support that saved dozens of lives.

“The special tactics community knows that to save a life, you sometimes must risk a life.”  General David Goldfein explained to the crowd.  He knows from experience, as a fighter pilot that once had to eject over Serbia when struck by a surface to air missile.  The general himself was saved by Air Force pararescuemen that day, and spoke to the honor he felt in presiding over Thursday’s ceremony.

On March 2nd, 2002 – less than a year after a terrorist attack would launch the United States into the global war on terror, Keary Miller was the Air Force combat search and rescue team leader assigned the unenviable task of recovering two American soldiers striving to evade capture in an area of Afghanistan occupied by large Al Qaeda and Taliban forces.  His team’s helicopter received heavy fire from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades immediately upon entering the area, forcing them to crash-land.

Master Sergeant Miller’s assault force debarked the downed craft and established a hasty defense, but were immediately met by fire from fortified positions.  Three members of his team died immediately, and five more suffered critical injuries.  Over the next eighteen hours, Miller would gather ammunition from the deceased and repeatedly cross open areas ripe with enemy gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire to distribute the ammunition from position to position.  As further attacks ensued, he would relocate the dead and provide lifesaving care for the wounded, even going so far as to remove the tail gun from the MH-47E helicopter and repositioning it to provide rear security, and pulling insulation from the damaged craft’s body to help keep the wounded warm.