Zachary J. Rhyner, a Combat Controller assigned to the 24th Special Operations Wing, is an extraordinary hero and warrior. Born in Medford, Wisconsin on 21 June 1986, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2004. After completing Combat Control training in December 2006, Rhyner was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope AFB. In September 2007, Rhyner earned his Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) rating which enabled him to direct close air support aircraft while embedded with special operations and coalition forces. In January 2008, he deployed to Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. As a Special Tactics Combat Controller attached to an Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) Team, he fought bravely alongside an Afghani Commando unit for five months driving Taliban militants from the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. On 6 April 2008, then-Senior Airman Rhyner displayed heroism against enemy forces during a daylight air assault raid in Nuristan province to capture high value Taliban insurgents in a village in the surrounding mountains. While climbing near-vertical terrain to reach their mountain top village objective, the 10-man team was attacked in a deadly ambush. From elevated and protected positions 200 well-trained insurgents poured down sniper, machine gun, and rocket propelled grenade fire from all directions pinning Rhyner and his team on the side of a 60 foot cliff. Rhyner held his ground amidst a flurry of enemy bullets and grenades impacting all around him. He quickly returned suppressive fire on enemy positions less than 200 meters from friendly forces using AH-64 helicopters allowing his team to take cover. The enemy continued the attack, killing one and wounding three team members including Rhyner within the first 15 minutes of the engagement. Rhyner was shot once in the leg and twice in the chest, saved only by the equipment on his load- bearing vest. Wounded and without regard for his life, Rhyner repeatedly placed himself between enemy forces and wounded soldiers providing suppressive fire with his M-4 rifle and “danger close” air strikes from A-10, F-15E, and AH-64 attack aircraft so wounded teammates could be pulled out of the line of fire. During the fight Rhyner controlled more than 50 attack runs and repeatedly repelled the enemy with frequent, life-saving “danger close” air strikes impacting as close as 100 meters from his position. Twice, his actions prevented his team from being overrun by the enemy who came as close as 40 feet during the harrowing six and one-half hour gunfight. Upon exfiltration his ODA leader directly attributed the entire team’s survival to Rhyner’s skill and poise under intense fire. For his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Airman Rhyner was awarded the Air Force Cross. He currently lives with his wife and son in North Carolina.
Years Honored: 2015
Aircraft/Specialty: Combat Controller
Then-Senior Airman Rhyner calls in "danger close" airstrikes repelling enemy forces during a daring, daylight air assault raid in Nuristan province, Afghanistan. Rhyner was awarded the Air Force Cross for his extraordinary heroism.