Special operator gets 2nd-highest military honor

There's multitasking. And then there's extreme, hair-raising multitasking, which is what Air Force Capt. Barry F. Crawford Jr. accomplished in Afghanistan to earn the military's second-highest honor.

Much of what Crawford did wasn't even his job to do.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, will award the Air Force Cross to Crawford in a Pentagon ceremony Thursday for his "extraordinary heroism" in a battle with Taliban insurgents on May 4, 2010. The Air Force Cross, the Navy Cross and the Army's Distinguished Service Cross are second only to the Medal of Honor.

The 31-year-old native of suburban Philadelphia is a special operations combat controller — a battlefield airman who calls in air strikes and provides communications during covert missions.

"Our primary weapon is not our sidearm or rifle," Crawford said in an interview Wednesday. "It's actually our radio."

That's part of what makes it all the more noteworthy that Crawford exposed himself to insurgent fire in an open field to guide in a medical evacuation helicopter and twice again exposed himself to launch attacks on militant positions with his assault rifle. This was all the while controlling 33 aircraft and well over 40 strafing and bombing airstrikes during a 14-hour ambush and battle in eastern Afghanistan.

"Capt. Crawford braved effective enemy fire and consciously placed himself at grave risk on four occasions," the citation from President Barack Obama says. "His selfless actions and expert airpower employment neutralized a numerically superior" insurgent force.

Crawford and Army special forces, who were mentoring Afghan commandos, were on a mission to move through a local village, search houses for weapons and meet local residents, "just trying to talk to them and see what's going on, gather some intelligence," he said. They were told the village was sympathetic to the Taliban and to expect 10 to 15 fighters in the region.

But someone had tipped off insurgents and the mission quickly turned into what Crawford called "a battle of survival."

The U.S. and Afghan troops found the village largely empty but laced with tunnels, and "each house was like a little fortress in itself (fitted with) firing ports," Crawford said.

Eventually more than 100 insurgents converged on the area.

"Every alleyway, every open area that we moved through ... they knew we were there and they were able to shoot down into our positions," Crawford said. One of his buddies referred to it as shooting fish in a barrel.

By time the coalition forces got out of the village and were airlifted to safety, the Air Force says, 80 insurgents were dead, as were two Afghan government commandos.

Three wounded Afghans soldiers survived after being evacuated, including two put on the helicopter that Crawford had helped bring in.

"Capt. Crawford took decisive action to save the lives" of the wounded Afghan soldiers and evacuate the Afghans killed, the citation said.

No U.S. troops were seriously injured.

The 2003 graduate of the Air Force Academy was assigned at the time to the 23rd Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron and is now assigned to the 104th Fighter Squadron, where he is an A-10 pilot trainee in the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Fighter Wing.

He is married and has two young sons.