Eleven Air Force combat air controllers received awards at a ceremony Thursday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
In Afghanistan, these airmen played a key role in the initial 2001 invasion that relied heavily on air power to topple the Taliban. They have been in the thick of the fight ever since.
Thursday, standing on a stage in a huge air hangar, [Staff Sgt. Sean] Harvell received two Silver Stars for valor for his actions during a harrowing six-month tour of duty in 2007.
Clad in a blue uniform and scarlet beret, he shared the stage with 10 other Air Force combat controllers who received combat awards, including another Silver Star, five Bronze Stars with Valor, three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said the scope of the joint medal awards was unprecedented in the service's modern history.
During the Afghan and Iraq wars, unlike earlier conflicts, the airmen working on the ground are receiving more of the combat medals than the aviators, he said.
Schwartz said the combat controller's work is part of a broader cultural shift as more and more Air Force personnel work in close coordination with ground forces. Those honored Thursday, Schwartz said, "exemplify the future of our service."
The airmen's collective combat experience also bears witness to the lethal Special Ops counterinsurgency battles that have unfolded in remote parts of Afghanistan, often shrouded in secrecy.
Senior Airman Evan Jones, awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for Valor, is credited with helping his team fight through a gantlet of 20 enemy positions on Sept. 2, 2008. Wounded in the shoulder and hands, Jones was still able to call in airstrikes and is credited with saving the lives of 60 comrades,
Staff Sgt. Christopher Martin, awarded the Bronze Star with Valor directing 22 air attacks, five strafing runs and the release of 8,000 pounds of ordinances during two days of fighting in 2008.
Harvell, a 27-year-old airman from Long Beach, Calif., faced a series of intense battles on a third tour of Afghanistan duty that took him deep into Helmand Province, where a resurgent Taliban was expanding control.
On May 7, 2007, Harvell was caught in what his first Silver Star citation termed a "savage eight-hour firefight." Surrounded by enemy fire, he directed air support at Taliban positions and evacuated the wounded.
He was awarded the medal for his actions on that day and subsequent actions three weeks later, when he was ambushed and wounded
He received his second Silver Star for his actions on July 25, 2007, when he sprinted through close-range fire to where he could toss a grenade to take out a Taliban fighter, then ran a second gantlet as gunfire peppered his feet in order to direct an air attack.