Tech. Sgt. Daniel P. Keller, a combat controller in the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, was awarded the Air Force Cross during a ceremony here today for his heroic actions on a battlefield in Afghanistan.
Keller earned the combat award — second only to the Medal of Honor — for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States during his participation in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
“Only 10 Airmen since 9/11 have received this honor,” said Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, who presented the medal in a hangar at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base. “We never know when Airmen like Dan will risk everything for a fellow teammate in a really bad situation, but that’s exactly what he did.
“As your chief, it gives me great strength to know that the special tactics community will always make the impossible seem effortlessly possible,” Goldfein continued. “This is a great day for our Air Force, and may God bless this nation and those like Tech. Sgt. Keller who always have, and always will, defend her.
“I’d like to say these events and actions are remarkable, because I truly feel that to be the case, but I doubt you’d agree, Dan,” Goldfein added. “I think you’d probably say you were just doing your job — doing your job like so many are today who are still taking the fight to our enemies in faraway lands. Congratulations, Dan.”
While serving as a joint terminal attack controller attached to a combined joint special operations assault force on Aug. 16, 2017, Keller embarked on a clearance operation in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, against 350 Islamic State fighters. After 15 hours of sustained contact, the assault team struck an improvised explosive device, killing four personnel and wounding 31.
Less than 10 feet away, Keller was knocked over by the force of the blast, resulting in traumatic brain injury. Struggling to his feet, he executed air-to-ground engagements while returning fire, repulsing an enemy assault less than 150 meters away.
“I don’t remember much,” Keller said. “Initially, I thought I was blind. Everything went black. Then I got up and realized I wasn’t blind, it was just a massive black cloud of smoke and debris. Your ears are ringing, but you could just hear screaming — just guys screaming and gunfire.”
Keller helped move 13 critically-wounded casualties to a helicopter landing zone “under a hail of enemy fire,” according to the award citation. When medical evacuation helicopters were unable to identify the landing zone, he sprinted to the center of the field, exposing himself to enemy fire in order to marshal in both aircraft and aid in loading the casualties.
Once the helicopter departed, the ground force commander aborted the mission. In spite of his injuries, Keller loaded wounded personnel into vehicles and volunteered to walk 2 1/2 kilometers back to a combat outpost, escorting other wounded teammates. During this movement, he repulsed a three-sided enemy attack by returning fire and simultaneously passing enemy positions to another joint terminal attack controller, allowing friendly forces to break contact. After arriving back at the outpost, Keller was evacuated for his injuries.
“His personal courage, quick actions and tactical expertise whilst under fire directly contributed to the survival of the 130 members of his assault force, including 31 wounded in action, and resulted in an estimated 50 enemy killed in action,” the citation said.
Keller said that the experience has provided him with motivation to hone his skills even further.
“It drives me to want to be better at my job,” Keller said. “After living through that sort of stuff and seeing what we can do as the enabler to these special forces teams, I know how important it is for us to be really squared away at our job and to provide service to them at an expert level.”
Keller’s accomplishments on the battlefield are not surprising to Chief Master Sgt. Aaron May, chief enlisted manager for the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron.
“You see it every day here,” May said. “You see him always training harder and looking forward. When he got there, he was ready. When it came time to do that job, he was ready. Dan’s been a top performer the whole time, and I’m happy that’s he’s being recognized.
“His appetite to just go down range and do what our mission is — it’s really unique,” May continued. “His work ethic, his dedication and his foresight to see what’s coming — Dan’s constantly pushing forward.”
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin also took the stage to praise Keller during the award ceremony.
“Among us, there are people who step up and do truly heroic things,” Bevin said. “There was within him an innate ability to step up and go above and beyond.
“It’s an honor to know you.” Bevin said to Keller. “As somebody who loves this country, I’m grateful to you for answering the call.”
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