Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Keller, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, received the nation’s second-highest award for valor, the Air Force Cross, on Friday for his bravery fighting the Islamic State in a 15-hour firefight.
On Aug. 16, 2017, in a rocky valley of eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a house rigged with improvised explosives just feet away from the combat controller, exploded and forced Keller to the ground with injuries, Star and Stripes reported.
Keller shook off the blast, which ultimately left him with a traumatic brain injury, and continued to face enemy allowing 130 members of a U.S.-Afghan commando force to escape alive. According to the Air Force, his actions directly led to the deaths of 50 terrorists.
“It’s a necessary task that has to occur to get your friends the help they need,” the 34-year old native from Carlisle, Pa., told Military.com. “Whoever’s available, they’re going to do it.”
He added that it is “very humbling,” according to Stripes.
“It’s also – you think about all the other guys in these events, and the amazing stuff you see guys do in combat that might not be recognized,” Keller said. “It’s weird, man. I’m very honored and humbled that the Air Force thinks what I did that day deserves this recognition.”
Keller received the Air Force Cross from the Kentucky Air National Guard for “extraordinary heroism while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.”
“His personal courage, quick actions and tactical expertise whilst under fire directly contributed to the survival of the 130 members of his assault force, including 31 wounded in action,” states the medal citation for Keller.
Keller, in his second deployment to Afghanistan, and the rest of the commando team spent much of the deployment away from the relative protection of fortified compounds. Instead they conducted “clear and hold operations” to push ISIS forces out and maintain their command of the area while villagers displaced by Islamic State fighters could return to their homes.
“The fighting was real – and it’s still going on. People are still getting hurt and getting killed in that fight today,” Keller said. “I think it’s amazing what a small group, like a special forces team and their partner forces, is capable of doing against these larger number [of ISIS fighters] who are dug in after taking over these people’s homes and villages.”
Keller added that witnessing the local Afghans return to their lives after ISIS was defeated was a rewarding experience.
“You can see that it’s effective as you see the crops returning and seeing lights on at night in these places behind you that you just pushed through and cleared,” Keller said. “To be part of that, to assist those people and our [special forces] guys – it was an honor.”
Keller is still an active-duty, full-time member of the Kentucky Air National Guard and has served with them since 2012. He also served in the Navy from 2003 to 2009.