Pararescueman to be awarded Air Force Cross

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Lauren M. Sprunk
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
It was his first official mission as a Pararescueman. The blades of the helicopter were spinning as the freezing air of the snowy mountains blew around him. With adrenaline pumping through him, the only thing he could hear were his anxious thoughts of fear and excitement. What he had believed would be a rewarding experience was quickly turning into a nightmare.

BOOM! The helicopter was struck by a Rocket Propelled Grenade and the pilots were losing control, forcing an emergency landing at an altitude over 11,000 ft. in several feet of snow. He could see glimpses of daylight as bullets were fired into the side of the helicopter. The team unclipped from their seats, forced to exit the aircraft with nothing but instinct to guide them.

Within the first six minutes, 14 of the 21 on board were severely wounded or dead.

It was these details of the Battle of Roberts Ridge in March 2002 that retired Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller shared with Pararescuemen from the 38th Rescue Squadron, March 3, 2017, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga.

“You train your whole life to do something and just wait for a mission, but you’ll never truly be prepared for what happens when that mission comes,” Miller said. “Stepping out of the helicopter that day, I remember getting tunnel vision, my ears went out, and everything around me was grey.”

Miller served as the Air Force combat search and rescue team leader during the mission. The team’s task was to recover Navy Seal Neil Roberts. Before they headed out to rescue Roberts, a C-130 aircraft scanned the area with a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera to try to detect the body temperature of any potential enemies. At the time, the scan determined that the area was clear.

The team later found out that enemy teams were hiding in metal bunkers under several feet of snow. This technique gave them camouflage from the FLIR camera, ensuring them the element of surprise needed for the ambush against Miller and his team.

Although the team was unaware of the danger ahead, they relied on the training they had received to guide them through the battle.

“I was always taught ‘you come out fighting as fast as you can,’” Miller said. “We immediately started laying down fire to suppress the enemy. Our number one priority was our men so we had to suppress them as much as we could in order to tend to our casualties and provide medical support.”

The battle lasted 17 hours, resulting in 10 wounded and seven killed in action. Among those killed and the one closest to Miller was one of Moody’s own, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham. Cunningham was assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron at the time of the battle.

After Cunningham was shot, Miller noticed the casualties he had been treating were left without care and in danger. Miller waded through snow and showers of enemy fire to move his wounded teammates to safety in order to continue the self-aid buddy care Cunningham had been providing.

Miller’s team called in for close air support to help them. With hardly any ammo left and nothing but morphine to provide comfort to the patients, the team’s hope was finally restored as two helicopters arrived to take them home.

In recognition of his valor and brave actions during the Battle of Roberts Ridge, Miller was awarded a Silver Star medal, Nov. 1, 2003. After a review of medals, Miller’s silver star is now being upgraded to an Air Force Cross, the service’s highest combat medal for valor. He is slated to receive the Air Force Cross April 20 at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

“It means a lot [to receive this award], but it is almost bittersweet,” said Miller. “That day was a team event and there was guys out there that probably did more than me that probably deserve more.”

Although he remains humble, others that hear Miller’s story seem to look up to him as a hero. This was made clear when Miller received a handshake and a “thank you” from every pararescueman in attendance during his presentation, as well as ceremonial push-ups honoring him and Cunningham.

Miller attributes his heroic acts to his commitment to live by the warrior echos, to never leave a fallen comrade behind, alive or dead.

Fifteen years later, he can still recall every injury each person had and everything he did to try to help them. After giving this presentation what he believes to be 400 times, he is still brought to tears with any mention of his fallen teammate’s names.

However, he feels that sharing the story with other Pararescuemen provides a positive turnaround and brings light to the situation, rather than grieving in isolation.

“I don’t think you go through an event like this and totally recover,” said Miller. “I think you adapt and overcome, and everybody handles it a little different. [Giving this presentation] allows me to tell my teammate’s stories for them and carry on the ultimate sacrifice that they gave me out there.”

Miller said that his goal in sharing his story with today’s pararescuemen is for them to understand that what they do here at home has consequences down the road. He added that he hopes they put the effort into the training that is given to them and perform at a high standard in order to be successful overseas.

This was also the goal that Maj. Jason Egger, 38th Rescue Squadron director of operations, had in mind when he asked Miller to come to Moody.

“Miller’s story is an important part of our legacy,” said Egger, “My intent was to provide a perspective on how challenging a mission can become when it changes from the original tasking, and to motivate the Airmen to continue to train towards realistic scenarios in order to be prepared for an event like this.”

“His story and actions are a constant motivation to the pararescuemen,” Egger added. “I believe that hearing his story will help shape the training philosophy of our squadron by helping them understand that you have to keep working to accomplish the mission no matter the odds against you.”