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Airman Receives Distinguished Flying Cross

ISR Pilot’s Actions Saved 184 Lives

By ground or by air, the 21st Century battlefield is a chaotic and complicated environment. Making sense of the madness and carnage is the purview of the United States Air Force’s Tactical Systems Operators (TSOs), the efforts of which enhance command and control and help manage the commitment of U.S. tactical assets to the fight at hand.

On 08 February 2019, Master Sergeant Zachary Cooper was part of an aircrew providing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), airborne command and control, casualty evacuation, and armed overwatch for U.S. and Afghan special operations forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

While engaged in a force protection patrol, the special forces personnel under the watchful eyes of Sergeant Cooper and his crewmates came under heavy enemy fire. Regrettably, the aircraft in which Cooper was flying—the only friendly aerial asset in the area—suffered a malfunction of its ordnance release system.

Cooper, however, skillfully troubleshot the glitch, allowing the aircraft to strike multiple targets on the ground, several of which were danger close to U.S. and Afghan forces.

In the argot of combat close air support, the term danger close describes a position within the design range of enemy artillery, mortar, small-arms, and naval gunfire.

As his aircraft engaged numerous enemy ground targets, Cooper directed incoming Coalition aerial assets to the point of conflict, including multiple F-16s fighter jets, which further suppressed enemy fire and destroyed multiple enemy buildings.

Cooper then initiated communications by which he coordinated the evacuation of wounded Afghan ground-troops, facilitating their retrieval and transport to emergency medical facilities within the so-called golden hour—which the U.S. Army defines as the first hour after the occurrence of a traumatic injury. The golden hour is broadly considered the most critical for emergency stabilization of a casualty.

In all, the survival of 184 U.S. and Afghan special operations personnel was credited to Cooper’s actions.

On 28 March 2023, during the 363d Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing Commander’s Leadership Summit, at Virginia’s Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Master Sergeant Zachary Cooper was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor and comportment in the face of enemy fire. The decoration was presented to Cooper by General Mark Kelly, HMFIC of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command.

Cooper enlisted in the Air Force in 2005, serving initially as a tactical aircraft maintenance apprentice. The young airman then transferred into the then-new USAF specialty 1A8X2—the TSO.

According to U.S. Air Force literature, TSOs are airmen who “deliver specialized intelligence directly to United States Special Operations Forces through providing equipment maintenance and configuration, analysis and dissemination, airborne ISR, and operational support.”

Speaking to the subject of his award, Sergeant Cooper set forth: “As an Air Combat Command Airman in direct support of Air Force Special Operations Command, I am honored and humbled to be recognized with my crew for the support we were able to provide to the Assault Force that night.”

Sergeant Cooper added: “It was one of those nights, like many others, where things just clicked for us as a team and we were able to do the right things, at the right times. It really was a team effort and the professionalism of all involved was second to none.”



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