The battlefield is a chaotic and complicated environment. That’s true on the ground, and high in the sky above, where Air Force Tactical Systems Operators (TSOs) are often engaged in providing command and control and helping manage assets for the fight. 

Last week, one such TSO was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for providing all that and more during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2019. The award was presented on March 28 at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. 

On February 8, 2019, Master Sgt. Zachary Cooper was part of an aircrew providing “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, airborne command and control, casualty evacuation, and armed overwatch” for U.S. and Afghan special operations forces who came under heavy enemy fire during a force protection patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, according to Cooper’s awards citation. 

The aircraft Cooper was flying in was initially the only aerial asset overhead, and Cooper “was pivotal in troubleshooting and resolving a malfunction with the aircraft weapons release system,” allowing that aircraft to strike multiple targets on the ground, several of which were “danger close” to U.S. and Afghan forces, according to his awards citation. 

“Due to operational sensitivities, we cannot release further information specific to the aircraft involved in that action,” Air Force Special Operations Command said when asked about what specific aircraft Cooper was aboard during the operation. 

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With the aircraft Cooper was aboard engaging targets on the ground, he then quickly directed other aerial assets in the area to the battlefield, including multiple F-16s fighter jets. Due to the “situational awareness built by the crew prior to their arrival on station,” those jets were able to further suppress enemy fire and destroy multiple enemy buildings, according to the awards citation.   

Cooper then also initiated communications and coordinated the evacuation of wounded Afghan troops, enabling them to be evacuated within the so-called “golden hour,” which the Army defines as the “first hour after the occurrence of a traumatic injury [that’s] considered the most critical for emergency stabilization of a casualty.”

All in all, Cooper’s actions were credited with helping ensure the survival of 184 U.S. and Afghan special operations personnel. 

Cooper enlisted in the Air Force in 2005, initially serving as a Tactical Aircraft Maintenance apprentice for F-15s. He then transferred into what was then a new Air Force specialty – 1A8X2, the TSO. 

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,” according to the Air Force. 

“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,” Cooper said when receiving the award. 

“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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