The story behind SSgt Zach Rhyner, USAF, Air Force Cross in Afghan's Shuk Valley

Remember that kid from Medford, he lived next door?

By Ed Marek, editor

March 24, 2009 updated August 24, 2015.

Addendum: TSgt. Zach Ryner has medically retired from the USAF effective August 21, 2015. A gunshot wound to his right hip during a 2013 deployment to Afghanistan shattered his femur and severed a nerve, but he threw himself into rehabilitation while serving as an instructor for special tactics airmen. Before his retirement, Rhyner completed one last military freefall jump. (082415)


On March 10, 2009, SSgt. Zachary Rhyner, USAF, of Medford, Wisconsin, received the Air Force Cross from Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF), in the presence of General Norton Schwarz, Chief of Staff, USAF (CSAF), at Pope AFB, North Carolina, adjacent to Ft. Bragg, for his role in employing air power to support the ODA 3336 special forces and their Afghan allies on April 6, 2008. The Air Force Cross is the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Air Force. He is an air combat controller from the USAF Special Operations Command and assigned to special tactics squadrons, in his case the 21st.

For my web site, "Talking Proud, Service & Sacrifice," I did an extensive story on the Battle of the Shuk Valley, Afghanistan for which he received this high honor for gallantry. He was attached to a group of US Army Special Forces and the Afghan 201st Kandak Commandos as they hunted down one of the most dangerous high value targets in that country. Rhyner would receive the Air Force Cross, while ten Special Forces Soldiers he was with received the Silver Star. Their story is entitled, "Special Forces ODA 3336 deep in the Hindu Kush, gallantry and courage," and I commend it to you. It's long, in six sections, because we know so little about Afghanistan and the war to which we have sent our men and women. I wanted to describe not only the men in the fight, the fight itself, and the lineage of the units to which they belong, but also the history of the area, the nature of the enemy target, and the environment of the target area.

I have not talked to Zachary, but I know what kind of guy he is. Mention his heroism and his response would go something like, "Aw shucks, I was just doing my job." One of his Army Special Forces colleagues lost a leg in this fight, torn off by hostile fire, picked it up, tied it to his groin and thigh, kept on fighting and managed to get out alive. His remark during one interview was, "Yeah, I gotta few scratches." These guys come from down the street, they live next door, we go to school with them, and play with them as kids. And out of no where, when the going gets very tough, they rise up and do what they were trained to do with a level of courage that is mind boggling.

I've talked with Zach's proud mom, Suzanne. Zach is a 2004 Graduated of Medford Senior High School, Taylor County. He was a cornerback for the school's football team. He was determined to join the Air Force. He had researched what the Air Force might have to offer him for two years, and selected combat controller. He signed up when he was 17, and enlisted when he was 18, and was fortunate to get his first career choice. Suzanne told me in no uncertain terms that Zach is all about "team." He'll be heading back to Afghanistan this year for his second tour.

Thank you for your service and sacrifice, SSgt Zach Rhyner of Medord, Wisconsin, and "Go Badgers."