Combat controller among most-decorated troops since 2001


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice


Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas (Courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas)

Two combat controllers with a decade of connected service will share the stage to receive medals of valor.

For one, he will become just the second airman to receive two of the highest three valor awards in the global war on terror. The other will stand next to his former mentor and be honored for a battle that helped turn the tide in Afghanistan.

Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas will receive a Silver Star with the first oak leaf cluster July 22 for actions during an 18-day battle in February 2011 in Afghanistan, helping destroy more than 20 insurgents and their holdouts, along with saving a Green Beret.

Staff Sgt. Dale Young will receive his first Silver Star for a four-day battle in May 2009 that resulted in the deaths of more than 90 insurgents and destruction of more than $1 billion in black-tar heroin.

The two combat controllers have known each other for more than a decade, with Villegas taking Young under his wing during his first assignment at RAF Lakenheath, England.

“Tech. Sgt. Villegas and Staff Sgt. Young are perfect examples of what it means to be a battlefield airman,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. They risked their lives and courageously engaged with enemy forces for days and weeks at a time to ensure the successful completion of their missions and the safety of their SOF teammates. It is inspiring and humbling to serve with these warriors, and I am honored to present them with the Silver Star.”

'Stirring up a hornet's nest'
On Feb. 6, 2011, Villeagas was serving as the lead joint terminal attack controller with a group of elite Army Green Berets. He and his team were tasked with retaking an area of Helmand Province.

It was supposed to be a weeklong mission.

Immediately upon entering the area, the group met stiff resistance from enemy small arms fire, improvised explosive devices and mortars. The group pushed through, holding their objective and forming an area hold so the Taliban wouldn’t come back in behind and surround the group.

Their task: to hold the area, and it wasn’t easy.

“It was pretty much trench warfare,” Villegas said. “There were a lot of RPGs, a lot of mortars. We continued to fight through the assault though.

“The area hadn’t had any U.S. or coalition presence in a few years, so we encountered a lot of resistance. We had to establish a presence, and we ended up stirring a hornets nest, so to speak.”

The resistance was so fierce, the team’s mission was extended by more than a week. The Silver Star citation outlines three instances of valor where Villegas “selflessly and repeatedly risked his life during nonstop enemy engagements.”

“We were extremely effective, and there was a lot more enemy than we initially anticipated,” Villegas said. “It was necessary to clear the area.”

During a battle early in the mission, a friendly element was pinned down by hostile fire. Villegas ran toward the troops to get a sight on the insurgent’s position. While completely exposed to the small arms fire, Villegas coordinated with an overhead remotely piloted aircraft and fixed-wing air support to drop 14,000 pounds of bombs.

In another instance, Villegas volunteered for a patrol to explore the area, and his team came under enemy fire. The group was inside a structure, stacked up on a door, when an RPG hit. Shrapnel shredded the wall in front of them and hit a Green Beret soldier next to him.

“I heard the screams, so I grabbed him, pulled him back and began directing air support in the area,” he said.

Villegas moved between his team and the enemy, providing additional cover fire and controlled close air support within 60 meters of him to stop the onslaught and help the patrol fight their way over the kill zone.

Over the course of the 18-day mission, Villegas controlled 40 aircraft, dropping more than 32,500 pounds of ordnance. His work resulted in 21 enemy killed and the destruction of eight fighting positions and two communication repeaters.

A group of two
With the awarding of the second Silver Star, Villegas joins an exlusive club. He is only the second airman to receive multiple high valor awards in the global war on terror, joining Staff Sgt. Sean Harvell, according to Doug Sterner, the curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor. There are a total of 11 troops across all services to be awarded multiple high valor awards.

Villegas was presented his first Silver Star in 2011, for a September 2009 battle in Afghanistan. In that instance, he was the only JTAC in an Army Special Forces team tasked with clearing a road of IEDs near Bagh Kosak when his team was ambushed. He ran 200 feet across an open minefield to a higher position to return fire and call in air support. During the 16-hour firefight, the airstrikes killed 32 enemy insurgents and saved the lives of his teammates.

Villegas, a 16-year Air Force veteran, has now been twice recognized for his work with Green Berets — the elite troops that first drew him to the military. His plan originally was to join the Green Berets or other special operations forces, until he came across a pamphlet about combat controllers.

To him, the awards show the importance of the training combat controllers receive.

“It’s pretty humbling to represent the combat controller community,” said Villegas, now a recruiting liaison at Joint Base San Antonio. “A lot of credit goes to the combat controllers that trained me and the training I received.”

For now, he’s enjoying his liaison position. But going forward, “wherever the Air Force calls me to service is where I’ll go.”

Operation Siege Engine
Staff Sgt. Dale Young took a similar route to the Air Force, an interest in special operations that brought him to the combat controller community. He was only 17 when he enlisted in his home town of Akron, Ohio, convincing his parents to agree to let him join.

Over an 11-year career, he has deployed twice as a JTAC. In May 2009, he joined a team of Army Special Forces, Navy SEALS, Air Force combat controllers, Afghan commandos and other government agencies for Operation Siege Engine, a large onslaught into Taliban-controlled territory to get it ready for U.S. Marines to come in and hold.

It was a known enemy stronghold near Helmand Province and a known headquarters with big money from drug traffickers, Young said.

The team moved in under the cover of darkness May 19, and at first, there was no enemy contact. They moved in to the village. Two roads in the village center crossed at a bazaar, and this is where the Taliban began to fight.

It began with small arms fire from within 150 meters. Then RPGs and 107 millimeter rockets.

“Some of the elements were receiving fire so intense that they couldn’t return fire,” Young said.

Young, the lead JTAC on the team, ran to the center of the village and found the highest vantage point he could. He began coordinating with an AC-130 and helicopter gunships above. He directed a show of force, gun strages to try to quell the enemy fire. The fighting continued, with some enemy small arms and rocket fire impacting within 10 meters of Young’s position, the award citation says.

He broke his cover, found a better view of the enemy location and radioed aircraft above to drop 500-pound bombs onthe enemy.

“The guns were not as effective as we would have liked,” Young said.

The firefights were on and off at times during the 94-hour battle. At one point, another JTAC was wounded. Young organized the aircraft above to bring in a UH-60 Pave Hawk to medically evacuate the airman.

On the last day of the mission, Young got intel that there was a high-value target in the area and coordinated with a remotely piloted aircraft to launch two Hellfire missiles. At another location, a sniper was holed up in a compound that intelligence showed held a Taliban leader. That ended with two 2,000-pound bombs dropped from B-1B Lancers.

“After that, there really wasn’t any more enemy activity,” Young said.

After quieting the area, the team found a massive enemy cache: $1.2 billion worth of black-tar heroin, 300,000 pounds of poppy seeds, IED making materials and weapons. Their mission of clearing the area was complete. With one thing left to do, Young radioed the coordinates of the cache to the B-1s.

“We were making sure the enemy couldn’t come back to use it, sell it or have any effect in that area whatsover,” Young said.

On the ex-filtration helicopter, Young made sure all personnel were accounted for. As they flew away from the battlefield, he gave the go-ahead for the B-1s to drop thousands of pounds of bombs in the area and the weapons and drug caches. Young estimates that the B-1s dropped more than 90,000 pounds of ordnance.

All told, the enemy equipment and drugs were destroyed, and Young’s actions during nearly four days of battle contributed to more than 90 Taliban killed in action.

“We were to prepare the area for the Marines; we didn’t expect this much enemy combat,” Young said. “But as the 94 hours continued, that’s what happened.”

Young is now an instructor at the combat controller selection course at Joint Base San Antonio, and he is finishing his degree. But after so much time in, “it would be a waste to get out for sure,” and he is considering putting his name in to become a special tactics officer.

For him, the Silver Star highlights the team effort. Everyone had a job, and he did his.

“There were so many people involved on this mission,” he said. “It just goes to show how well we worked together. It’s an absolute honor to receive the Silver Star.

“Looking at the guys previously awarded, these guys make history in our career field and in the Air Force. It’s a great thing for combat control. ... You never stop learning. You’ve got to take advantage of the people who have gone before you.”