With bullets whizzing over his head and while under heavy attack, Keaton Thiem did the unexpected. He didn't remain hidden behind a bolder, seeking safety.
Instead, the Air Force staff sergeant risked his life, helping as a combat controller to save the lives of 100-plus men during a 14-hour military encounter in Afghanistan, Feb. 22. In recognition of his heroic feat, Thiem was awarded the Silver Star for valor at a ceremony Wednesday at JBLM.
While he says he's "humbled and gratified" to be only the second Air Force member to receive the Silver Star during Operation Freedom's Sentinel, Thiem's greatest reward is the thank yous he's gotten from those he helped rescue.
After a four-hour march that started at midnight, Thiem and his unit, that included Afghanistan military, were under heavy fire. Disregarding his own safety and while under heavy machine gun fire, Thiem carried a wounded Afghanistan soldier 200 yards to safety.
As Thiem carried this soldier, stopping from place to place to return fire and for shelter, he was also giving target site information to two F-16s.
The mission was to return electrical power and safety to this town in the Pul-E Khumri district.
"To all of the men we honor today, you are indeed exceptional," Lt. Col. Dan Magruder said. "You're even more exceptional because you did not seek recognition. It is an honor to serve as your commander. And the nation owes you and your loved ones a debt of gratitude. Again, thank you."
With his life in danger, Thiem said what kept him on task as an Air Force combat controller was all the training he's undergone.
"It's hard to say that the fear goes away because it is definitely nerve wracking," Thiem said. "The training we go through definitely makes it feel almost as if it's another training scenario. We train for so long and so hard."
A sense of duty kept Thiem on the move.
"Just knowing that everything is just resting on your shoulders," Thiem said. "I don't know if disregard for yourself takes over. But you have to do what you have to do to get the rest of the guys out of there."
This is the 36th Silver Star awarded to a special tactics airman since 9/11. There have been 73 Silver Stars presented to someone in the Air Force for actions taken in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The award itself is humbling," Thiem said. "It's definitely awesome to join the ranks of the others before me. I'm definitely honored and humbled to receive the award."
When the United States underwent a terrorist attack in 2001, Thiem, who grew up in Austin, Texas, was overcome with a sense of service.
"Ever since 9/11, when I was in middle school at the time, I just knew that there was something I had do," Thiem said. "This is my calling. I wasn't going to sit at my desk. I found this. I guess you can say it fits me in a way. I'm definitely glad I found Combat Control."