Monday, June 11, 2007

Tactical air controller receives Silver Star for actions during firefight

Air Force Staff Sgt. Earl I. Covel.

For a special-forces team in the heat of battle, air cover can be the difference between life and death. Staff Sgt. Covel was assigned in Iraq to work with an elite team of 8 Army special-forces soldiers and 10 “peshmerga” – indigenous Kurdish guerilla fighters. In June 2004, part of the team headed from its safe house in the city center back to base to re-supply. While they were gone, they received a call that an attack on the safe house had begun. Based on previous engagements, however, the team assumed it would be a quick skirmish – even though some intelligence had warned of a massive offensive that was in the works. By the time the team returned to the house, they realized they were under an extremely fierce attack – an attack that would last 36 hours and involve an estimated 200 insurgents.

As the tactical air controller, Covel quickly made his way to his battle positions on the roof of an adjacent building so he could locate the enemy positions and direct air support. Insurgents were ready, and accurately fired on him as he crossed the short open space. As he described it later, “It felt for a moment like I was in some sort of movie, running as the dirt kicked up around me.”

On the roof, he set up his radios, requested air support, and began the arduous task of identifying targets while under fire. As he was doing so, another soldier in his position laid down cover fire so that Covel could get a good look at the enemy’s set-up. The insurgents spotted the two and began firing a machine gun in their direction, hitting Covel’s partner in the ear. Another Soldier carried the injured soldier to safety, leaving Covel alone in what he described as his own “little corner of hell.”

But he wasn’t alone for long: A pair of Navy F-18 jets zoomed in low and let loose with a heavy stream of fire on the positions Covel had marked. They were followed by a steady stream of air cover throughout the fight. The battle carried on for 36 hours – and so Covel carried on for 36 hours, coordinating air attacks and using his weapon to defend himself and his team. When Covel ran out of equipment to mark targets, he radioed some Bradley fighting vehicles in the area, asked the gunners to begin shooting at a specific target, then told his air crew to look for the building or areas where the Bradleys were firing. That was their next target.

In all, the small team of Soldiers and peshmerga lost not a single man, yet are credited with killing more than 100 insurgents. The Army team recommended Covel for the Silver Star, and he received the award on May 11, 2007.

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