Airman who took a bullet, rescued his teammate and unit during ambush awarded Silver, Bronze stars

Abbie Bennett
April 08, 2019 - 4:34 pm
Air Force Tech Sgt. Cam Kelsch

SOCOM

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It started out like “any other mission,” Tech Sgt. Cam Kelsch said of an operation in Afghanistan planned for the night of April 25, 2018.

But later that night, his unit was pinned down in a “massive firefight” in enemy territory.

Kelsch would take a bullet to his chest armor while rescuing a downed comrade before it was over. And he did so while continuing to guide “danger-close” strikes and eliminating all threats, the Air Force said in a statement.

For his actions, the Air Force special tactics operator will be awarded the nation’s third-highest medal for gallantry against an armed enemy of the United States in combat – the Silver Star Medal, along with a Bronze Star Medal with Valor, during a ceremony at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Ga. at 10 a.m. April 9.

Kelsch, who joined the Air Force in 2008, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2018 as a joint terminal attack controller with members of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.

On the night of April 25, Kelsch, soldiers of the 75th and partner Afghan Special Forces were headed down a “narrow footpath” and creek bed in single file when they “walked into a near ambush,” Kelsch said during a conference call from Hurlburt Air Base on April 5.

“The fire was so overwhelming initially that there was just fireballs going off everywhere,” Kelsch said. “Fragmentation was hitting all around my feet and the rocks.”

Then, one of his teammates was hit.

“One individual in front of me was struck in the chest by a round,” he said. “Initially, because of the way that he fell, I thought he’d been killed in action.”

Kelsh said the first thing he thinks about in combat is his role in supporting his team and saving his teammate wasn’t even a decision.

“The only thing I’m thinking about is the guys to my left and right and what the mission end state is,” he said. “It’s really easy to make that decision, in fact, it’s almost not a decision – it’s just a reaction that when you see one of your teammates go down, you do everything in your power to make sure that you go get him."

“I absolutely know if it was me down there that they would have done the exact same thing.”

“With no regard for his own personal safety,” Kelsch safeguarded U.S. and Afghan forces and aircraft during the night operation against “a high-value target,” part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, according to an Air Force statement.

With air support overhead, but obscured by trees, Kelsch had to expose himself to danger "to control airstrikes from an AC-130 gunship within 35 meters of his team’s position,” the Air Force Statement said.  

“Because of the tree cover, the aircraft overhead couldn’t see me … (or) the target,” Kelsch said. “I had to continually leave the protection of cover in order to adjust the rounds.”

Under cover from the AC-130 and suppressive fire from his commander, Kelsch headed out to continue controlling the airstrikes and to retrieve his downed teammate.

“He was trying to protect me while I protected the rest of the assault force,” he said.

Kelsch’s body armor stopped a round which went through a magazine he was wearing and otherwise would have struck his chest.

Despite being wounded by enemy fire, he dragged his American teammate to safety and continued to guide the “danger-close” strikes and eliminate remaining threats to the assault force, the statement said.

Kelsch saved his teammate and said the AC-130 crew saved him.

“If it were not for the true competency of that AC-130 crew, I wouldn’t be here today … it was a very precarious situation,” he said. “The aircrew really brought their A-game that night and made sure we got out of there.”

He also praised his Afghan Special Forces partners in the operation.

“The Afghan partner forces are true patriots for their country,” he said. “They want their country to be rid of terrorists. They want peace. They’re professional, they’re lethal, they’re highly trained. It was an honor to work with them.” One of the Afghan partner forces also was wounded in the mission, he said.

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On receiving the Silver Star, Kelsch said it wasn’t just about him.

“I just feel that I’m receiving it on behalf of my team simply because we’re all in that situation. We all had different roles to execute that night and we all brought the fight to the enemy to make sure that we all got out of that creek bed alive and the objective that we went out there to accomplish was met,” he said.

Despite his injury, Kelsch said his service in Afghanistan is not over.

“We’re still at war,” he said. “We still have a mission to do. There’s still a big mission and a lot to do over there. We’ll be going back.”

Air Force Special Operations did not release the location of the firefight where Kelsch was injured and earned his Silver Star Medal for security reasons, the command said.

Master Sgt. Phillip Paquette of the 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st Battalion also was awarded the Silver Star Medal for the April 25 operation. Fourteen other Rangers from 1st Battalion received awards for valor, and three received Purple Hearts.

The Bronze Star Medal is for a separate incident, Air Force officials said.  

While serving in Afghanistan with an interagency enabling team for a joint task force, Kelsch put himself between his wounded ground force commander and an enemy position after an ambush.

“While still being engaged by enemy personnel in immediate proximity, Sgt. Kelsch eliminated the threat and allowed his ground force commander to regain his bearing,” his Bronze Star citation read.

Since Sept. 11, Special Tactics airmen have received one Medal of Honor, nine Air Force Crosses and 44 Silver Star Medals, but Kelsch is the first Air Force TACP operator to be awarded the Silver Star in the last seven years, the statement said.

He will receive the awards from Maj. Gen. Vincent Becklund, deputy commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, according to a news release from the command last week.

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