The sun peaked over the urban Afghanistan terrain after days of cloudy grey skies, creating a peculiarly warm, late-October morning in 2018.
The change in weather created a tempered omen as a joint special-operations team was heading back to camp following two long weeks outside the wire, a wary contrast for what they would soon face.
The team knew they had to transit through a particularly dangerous area, but had no idea what was to come – a six-hour onslaught resulting in chaos and numerous causalities.
For the duration of their battle, the training and instincts of an Air Force special tactics operator were realized as an Airman willingly exposed himself to enemy fire, directed numerous 30mm gun-runs and nine 500-pound bombs, coordinated 11 danger-close engagements, assisted dozens of civilian casualties and aided in the recovery of a wounded teammate, even after being struck by enemy fire.
The joint special operations team was depending on the special tactics operator to get them out of there alive. He fought on.
On Nov. 22, family, friends and teammates gathered as Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, presented the Silver Star Medal to Tech. Sgt. Cody Smith, 26th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing, Special Tactics combat controller, during a ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.
“For the special tactics community, I think (this award is) just another testament to the level of personnel and the capabilities that we provide the combat environment,” Smith said. “It’s just another statement to say that the Air Force does create combat-capable personnel that can perform at a needed level.”
Smith was deployed as a qualified joint terminal attack controller with a U.S. Army Special Forces team to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and in support of the Resolute Support mission during the latter half of 2018.
“Among us, there are people who step up to do truly heroic things … people who have been called upon by history to accomplish extraordinary actions … people like (Tech. Sgt.) Cody Smith,” said Col. Matt Allen, 24th SOW commander.
The morning of Oct. 14, 2018, Smith and his team were transiting back to camp after conducting operations to push enemy forces out of Faryab Province during national parliamentary elections.
As they were entering the Shirin Tagab district, they immediately encountered a tractor-trailer burning on the side of the road, a possible signal letting enemy forces know that American troops were coming.
Deeper into the city, concrete barriers inlaid with improvised explosive devices, inevitably slowed down the convoy and channeled them into the city.
Then, the morning took a harsh turn.
Enemy forces sprang an overwhelming close-quarters ambush with mortar, rocket propelled grenade, machine gun and small-arms fire.
“The best description of the scene would have to be a directional and somewhat organized chaos,” Smith said.
Along with returning fire from his personal weapon, Smith was conducting 30mm airstrikes from AH-64 Apache helicopters. He was also dropping 250 and 500-pound bombs from F-16 Fighting Falcons, including 11 danger-close engagements as close as 50 meters away.
“I think the special tactics and the combat control career field does an incredible job at training personnel to meet and rise to those occasions in a very deliberate and methodical way,” Smith said. “We train to a level that enables us to be calm and be collected in those moments because that’s when you’re the most critical as the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on a special forces team or any (special operations force) entity.”
After a few hours of battling enemy fire, one of Smith’s teammates, clearing IEDs in the front of the convoy, was hit and pinned down by hostile fire. Civilian casualties, mostly mothers and children, began to approach the convoy asking for aid.
Smith was coordinating with aircraft and providing cover to some of the U.S. forces and civilians when he was targeted with a mortar that impacted just 2-3 meters from his position.
“I actually didn’t know what had impacted near me,” Smith said. “It was just dust and confusion … severely disoriented, basically just like a spinning effect, and extremely nauseous. I had to gather my composure and then continue on with providing all the support that I could.”
Even though Smith was suffering from a severe concussion, he refused medical treatment.
“The mission wasn’t over,” Smith said. “I was confident in myself to be able to maintain my composure … there was no one else there that could have stepped up and filled that role to conduct close air support if the team needed it. I needed to stay with the team and I needed to ensure that we made it back to our camp.”
Throughout the fierce battle, Smith was targeted once more with a mortar and hit with enemy fire in his chest plate.
As the fight continued on with the enemy swarming in on either side of the convoy, Smith was able to conduct precision-strike air power to eliminate forces, allowing the team to recover one of their own with a gunshot wound and break away.
Smith remained with this element for the 14-hour transit back to camp to ensure their safety.
In the end, Smith’s actions that day resulted in saving the lives of his joint team and prevented a complete overrun by enemy forces.
Smith credits the Silver Star Medal to his joint team.
“My actions are not my own and the amount of effort that was on the battlefield that day and the actions that were taken by my (U.S.) Army teammates was nothing short of incredible,” Smith said.
Amongst the crowd at Smith’s ceremony were four familiar faces: Col. Corey Ketsel, Lt. Cols. Eric Cleveringa, Josh Wika, and Carl Palmberg. These F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots with the 114th Fighter Wing, South Dakota Air National Guard, were overhead that chaotic October day in Afghanistan.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to see those guys again and shake their hands,” Smith said. “Largely the reason why I’m still here is because we had the support of those guys. They were incredibly competent in their actions and they had a sense of calm that eased me on the ground and that gave us the ability to put those effects down on the battlefield quickly and efficiently.”
Special Tactics Airmen are U.S. Special Operations Command’s tactical air to ground integration force, and AFSOC’s special operations ground force, leading global access, precision strike, personnel recovery and battlefield surgery operations.
Since 9/11, special tactics Airmen have received one Medal of Honor, 11 Air Force Crosses and 49 Silver Star Medals.