Fifteen years after a 17-hour battle on an Afghan mountaintop, a pararescueman's extraordinary heroism was recognized with an Air Force Cross, upgraded from a Silver Star, following a service-wide review of medals awarded since 9/11.
Then-Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller --against overwhelming odds and a barrage of heavy fire from Al Qaeda militants-- dashed through deep snow into the line of fire multiple times to assess and care for critically-wounded U.S. service members, March 4, 2002.
Miller was previously awarded the Silver Star medal for these actions, Nov. 1, 2003. The Air Force Cross is the service's highest combat medal for valor, second only to the Medal of Honor.
"We are blessed to have Airmen like Keary in the Special Tactics community," said Col. Michael Martin, the 24th Special Operations Wing commander, who directed training for Miller's pararescue team before their deployment in 2002. "In an extraordinary situation, Keary acted with courage and valor to save the lives of 10 special operations teammates. This medal upgrade accentuates his selflessness despite an overwhelming enemy force…although Keary may humbly disagree, he belongs to a legacy of heroes."
Miller was deployed from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, an Air National Guard unit based in Standiford, Kentucky. During the mission, he was the Air Force combat search and rescue team leader assigned to a U.S Army Ranger quick reaction force.
"I would describe Keary as a dedicated pararescueman – dedicated to his craft and dedicated to the motto 'That others may live.' That's how he defined himself and that really defines his actions that day," said Lt. Col. Sean Mclane, the 123rd STS commander, who was a second lieutenant in Miller's home unit during that time. "We have a proud legacy and a tradition of valor, and Keary is a big part of that."
On March 4, 2002, his team was tasked to support a joint special operations team on a mountaintop called Takur Ghar, occupied by Al Qaeda forces– an engagement commonly known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge after the first casualty of the battle, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts.
One of the most significant events in recent Special Operations history began when a joint special operations team attempted to infiltrate Takur Ghar, which held a well-fortified and concealed force. The ensuing battle would result in the loss of seven special operations team members.
"We were notified there was a missing aircrew and we were launching a team to go find them," said Maj. Gabriel Brown, a Special Tactics officer, formerly an enlisted combat controller. "It was unknown who exactly was missing, but we loaded up two helicopters full of Rangers and the (combat search and rescue) package, which included me, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham [pararescueman] and Keary, who was my team leader. I trusted him."
As the quick reaction force helicopter made its approach over the landing zone, they were struck by rocket propelled grenades at close range –they returned fire with mini guns, but the helicopter impacted the ground hard, lurching into the snow.
"Once we landed, 7.62mm rounds ripped through the fuselage--the daylight popping through, smoke aglow; then the rotors decelerated to a grinding halt," Brown said. "Immediately, we had several casualties; I remember seeing two Rangers face down. Keary and I were deep in the aircraft—and we made eye contact and shared kind of a 'here we go' moment."
The team disembarked from the aircraft to combat the blistering fire of a waiting enemy. At great risk to his own life, Miller moved through the snowy terrain, crossing into the line of fire on several occasions in order to assess and care for critically wounded servicemen.
"I saw Keary taking action on the wounded, worried about collecting the casualties and triaging them," Brown said, who was in charge of aircraft communications and precision strike. "He was careful in his thoughts and actions, conducting himself calmly and coolly – relaying the casualty information to me all morning."
As the battle continued, Miller collected ammunition from the deceased to distribute it to multiple positions in need of ammo, moving through heavy enemy fire each time.
"I was listening to the updates as they were coming in; I was so proud because my friends were on that mountain and their future was so uncertain but they were rocking it – they were doing everything right," Mclane said, who was listening real-time to satellite communications of the battle. "It's like, these guys might not make it off this mountain, but by God, they're going down swinging."
When Cunningham was killed during another attack, the casualty collection point he was at was compromised. Miller assumed Cunningham's role -- providing medical aid under fire to the wounded – and braved enemy fire to move the wounded to better cover and concealment.
"I wholeheartedly believe the Air Force Cross accurately represents Keary's actions that day," said Brown. "I know those lives were saved that day were because of his efforts within that environment…the steps he took to ensure they made it off the battlefield."
Miller is credited with saving the lives of 10 U.S. service members that day, and the recovery of seven who were killed in action.
Following his deployment, Miller returned to the 123rd STS as a mentor for the newest generation of operators. The events he experienced helped him to shape tactics, techniques and procedures for years to come.
"Keary was already a mature pararescueman before he went on that mission," Mclane said. "But, when he returned, he really dedicated himself to improving our body armor, our equipment, our (tactics, techniques and procedures) when under fire – he was driven to be better, and to make his teammates better."