Machine gun rounds flew all around him from 30 feet away. He sprinted through the fire to a position from which he could attack. He shot a rocket-propelled grenade into a room occupied by Taliban fighters.
And when that didn’t clear them out, Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell dodged the gunfire again, covering his team as he went.
Then he called in airstrikes that reportedly killed more than 50 insurgents in Central Afghanistan’s Helmand River area.
Those were the local airman’s heroics on just one day, “during a savage eight-hour firefight,” according to his Air Force citation.
It earned Harvell a Silver Star award. He earned another two months earlier.
A rocket-propelled grenade knocked him out and shrapnel tore at his flesh. When he roused, bleeding from several wounds, he grabbed his M-4 carbine, an M-12 shotgun and grenades, fighting back hard while directing airstrikes.
“When I came to, I gathered my faculties as much as I could,” Harvell recalled Thursday after a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “You can’t call a time out in a war zone.”
His gallantry under fire over three days in May and July 2007 earned the now-27-year-old combat air controller the nation’s third-highest decoration for valor.
The Air Force has awarded only 29 Silver Stars for service in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff.
Three were presented Thursday. And Harvell wears two of them.
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Harvell, a native of Long Beach, Calif., and father of a 9-month-old daughter, is the first Air Force combat controller to receive multiple Silver Stars in a single ceremony, officials said. Schwartz, the Air Force’s highest-ranking officer, pinned them on Harvell’s left breast Thursday morning. At the same ceremony, 10 other McChord airmen received medals for bravery and wounds suffered in combat. They were hailed as quiet men of impressive deeds under harrowing circumstances. They stood, ramrod straight, in Hangar 9 at McChord Field to accept their awards before an audience of 700 airmen, family members and dignitaries.
“All Americans in and out of uniform should take note of their honor and their bravery and certainly seek to emulate their deeds,” Schwartz said.
All but one of the 11 men awarded medals Thursday are or were members of the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron at McChord Field. The unit trains and deploys airmen to fight alongside Army Special Forces troops, Army Rangers, Navy Seals and Coalition Forces special operators in a variety of operations, including ground combat.
The combat controllers are the warriors who wield a rifle with one hand and a radio with the other, officers said, participating in the battle while calling in air support and medical evacuation teams. Staff Sgt. Evan P. Jones, 26, received both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with valor for his actions in Afghanistan. He called in air support and directed the evacuation of a wounded soldier, disregarding the shrapnel piercing his own legs, one of his award citations says.
“Sean and Evan’s actions were extraordinary and heroic,” said Lt. Col. Bryan H. Cannady, commander of the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron. He applauded their “warrior ethos” and “face-to-face, anytime, anyplace” dedication to duty.
“It’s quite an honor,” Harvell said after the one-hour ceremony. “When you’re over there, you don’t think about earning medals per se.” Yes, he was scared at times. He relied heavily on his intensive training.
“It’s a pretty nerve-racking experience. There are a lot of moving parts, especially when you’ve got bullets flying over your head,” he added. “There’s a fear factor. (But) You can actually be scared and still be a good combat controller.”
And on the occasions of May 8, May 30 and July 25, 2007, there was “definitely luck involved,” he added.
“You can’t pick and choose which bullets are going to fly past you and which ones are going to hit you.”
About a dozen of his teammates were killed or wounded in action during one stretch, he said.
Jones, of Colorado Springs, Colo., was a 24-year-old senior airman on Sept. 2, 2008, when “his remarkable professional skill and heroic actions” while wounded saved the lives of 60 of his comrades, his Silver Star citation says.
His Bronze Star citation credits him with saving the lives of five soldiers and aiding in the deaths of 14 enemies, including three Taliban commanders, as he called in F-16 strafing runs, F-18 strikes and helicopter evacuation of wounded team members.
But he doesn’t feel like a hero.
He did nothing more than all combat controllers who do “great work, not getting the recognition, but they deserve it,” Jones said.
These days you might see Harvell – serious faced, dressed for battle, aircraft flying overhead – on an Air Force recruiting poster over the words: “It’s not science fiction.”
He’s doing recruitment duties in the Los Angeles area, seeking the next generation of combat controllers.
But his place isn’t on a poster in a movie theater or even a recruitment tour, he said.
It’s back in Afghanistan with his friends and brothers.
“They’re still out there fighting,” he said.
8 Bronze Stars, 2 Purple Hearts awarded, too
In addition to the Silver Stars awarded to Staff Sgts. Sean R. Harvell and Evan P. Jones, the Air Force presented these medals Thursday at McChord Field.
Bronze Star with valor
• Staff Sgt. Evan Jones
• Master Sgt. Jeffrey Guilmain
• Staff Sgt. Simon Malson
• Staff Sgt. Christopher Martin
• Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Reiss
• Staff Sgt. Christopher Keeler
• Staff Sgt. Sean Mullins
• Senior Airman Matthew Matlock (125th Special Tactics Squadron*)
• Tech. Sgt. Douglas Neville
• Tech. Sgt. Marc Tirres
Silver Star: The nation’s third-highest military honor originated by an act of Congress on July 9, 1918. During World War I, it was a small silver star worn on the campaign service ribbon of a campaign medal, signifying gallantry in action. It was redesigned as a medal on Aug. 8, 1932, also by an act of Congress.
Bronze Star: Created on Feb. 4, 1944, recognizes heroism performed in ground combat.
Purple Heart: Established by Gen. George Washington in 1782, is awarded to any person wounded or killed in action while serving with the U.S. Armed Forces.