Airman earns Distinguished Flying Cross for response in 2019 firefight

Master Sgt. Zachary Cooper last month received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Pentagon’s highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement, for his courage and quick thinking when a nighttime ground patrol turned deadly in Afghanistan in 2019.

He scrambled to fix a problem that prevented his aircraft from firing its weapons, saving the lives of 184 U.S. and partner troops who faced “intense and effective enemy fire” from insurgent fighters on the ground, according to his award citation. He joins thousands of other American aviators who have been recognized for their exceptional efforts in air warfare.

Cooper served as a tactical systems operator with the 363rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing in Afghanistan, where he flew with Air Force special operators in missions targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Tactical systems operators are airborne intelligence specialists who, as part of the crew on a special operations aircraft, can vacuum up data from the surrounding area using interchangeable surveillance kits onboard and help direct operations accordingly.

On Feb. 8, 2019, Cooper was part of a team guarding ground forces from an unnamed armed aircraft over Helmand province, the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, when his plane — the only armed asset overhead — couldn’t fire its weapons. The citation did not describe the issue.

Cooper figured out a way to resolve the problem in time for the crew to conduct multiple airstrikes on enemy positions, the citation said. Several strikes targeted enemies in “danger close” range of U.S. and partner forces, it added.

“He expertly contacted tactical command and control early in the sortie, alerting them of the dire and deteriorating ground situation, and requested additional close air support assets,” the citation said.

F-16 Fighting Falcon jets came to the rescue, killing multiple enemy fighters and destroying buildings. Cooper also called in a medical evacuation for a badly wounded foreign service member.

Cooper received the award at a March 28 ceremony at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. He enlisted in the Air Force in 2005 as a fighter jet maintainer and later retrained as an airborne ISR operator.

“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,” he said in a release. “It really was a team effort and the professionalism of all involved was second to none.”

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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