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The medics did everything they could to save Staff Sgt. Aaron R. Butler.

The Special Forces soldier had the soul of a warrior and the physique of a championship wrestler.

Tech Sgt. Daniel Keller, 34, a Carlisle-area native, said Butler had just enough strength to crawl out of the structure devastated by the blast of an improvised explosive device.

“He was just a good guy,” Keller said of his friend. “Aaron loved being there. The positive change we were affecting in those valleys. He liked interacting with the locals. … Seeing them fight for the lives they had prior to ISIS.”

The friends were like brothers. That’s what made it so sad. The confusion and heat of battle made it hard for the medics to realize that Butler was dying from a jagged piece of metal that had pierced his heart.

The date was Aug. 16, 2017. The place: the Nangerhar province of Afghanistan. Keller was with the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron of the Kentucky Air National Guard. His actions that day near the border with Pakistan earned Keller the Air Force Cross, the second-highest medal for valor for an airman in the U.S. military.

“I don’t think I’m a hero,” said Keller, a 2003 graduate of Cumberland Valley High School. To him, the real heroes are the men who died for their friends and the veterans that survive long-term physical and mental damage.

Aaron R. Butler is one of those who died. He was 27 and a member of the 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) based at Camp Williams, Utah.

“Living in close proximity, you get to know a lot about each other,” Keller said. “Combat brings people closer together. The guys you’re with become your brothers. Aaron was a funny dude. He was a four-time state wrestling champion. … A warrior in the truest sense.”

Career of service

From 2003 to 2009, Keller served in the U.S. Navy as an aviation boatswain’s mate on two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, both home-ported in San Diego.

His job was to work the catapults and arresting gear on an often hazardous flight deck while deployed with a carrier battle group in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Honorably discharged, Keller went to a civilian school to be certified as a commercial welder for underwater construction. He worked a job in New Hampshire until January 2013 when he reentered the military, this time with the Air Force, and trained as a special tactics combat controller.

The two-year course was so rigorous it had a 75 to 80 percent washout rate. But the training prepared him for the rigors ahead. In May 2016, he became a joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC.

As a member of the Air Force Special Forces Command, Keller was assigned to Army Special Forces teams tasked with applying pressure against ISIS in Afghanistan. His job was to embed with the ground force to coordinate air strikes from combat jets and attack helicopters on enemy positions.

His first deployment to Afghanistan took place from June to October 2016. Keller was only in the U.S. about six months before getting orders to return to Afghanistan starting in April 2017.

Earning the Cross

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The mission that spring into summer was to clear ISIS units from mountain valleys, enabling local farmers and villagers to come back and resume the life they had before the insurgents swept in to occupy the land.

“The valleys were just dead. … No signs of anything positive happening,” Keller said. “As we moved forward, life was returning to the valleys. We were providing an opportunity for locals to reestablish life. But that came at a cost. There was more fighting where we were than anywhere else in the country.”

On Aug. 16, 2017, Keller was part of an assault force that included 30 U.S. troops and about 100 Afghan Army commandos. Their mission was to assist a special forces team that had encountered stiff enemy resistance in a neighboring valley.

The field commander split the assault force into two groups on either side of a dried up river bed. Flying overhead in a close support role were F-16 fighters, Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship.

For 15 hours, the assault force was in near-constant contact with the enemy. Along the way they reached what they believed was an enemy compound on the valley floor. Keller was standing near the structure when an improvised explosive device went off, killing four members of the assault force and wounding 31, according to a Kentucky Air National Guard press release.

“I was talking to a friend of mine about the plan for the evening,” Keller said. “We were face-to-face. The next thing I knew I was laying on my back. Everything was black. My ears were ringing. I just hear screaming and gunfire. I thought at first I was blind but in reality it was thick black smoke. As the smoke started to dissipate, I was checking myself for holes.”

Training kicked in. After clearing himself, Keller turned his attention to the next priority. As JTAC, it was his job to call down air strikes to suppress the enemy as the ISIS fighters tried to close in and take advantage of the aftermath.

While Keller was lucky enough not to catch shrapnel from the explosion, the concussion from the blast caused a traumatic brain injury that made his job challenging. Keller credits the combination of training and adrenaline to help him keep his focus for what the military is calling extraordinary heroism.

“Injured and struggling to his feet, Keller executed air-to-ground engagements while returning fire, repulsing an enemy assault less than 150 meters away,” the citation for the Air Force Cross reads. He then helped move 13 critically wounded casualties to a helicopter landing zone under the hail of enemy fire.

“When medical evacuation helicopters were unable to identify the landing zone, he [Keller] sprinted to the center of the field, exposing himself to enemy fire in order to marshal in both aircraft and aid in loading casualties,” the citation reads. “His personal courage, quick actions and tactical expertise whilst under fire directly contributed to the survival of the 130 members of his assault force including 31 wounded in action.”

Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein gave Keller the Air Force Cross during a ceremony in mid-September at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville.

“It’s very humbling,” Keller said. “I’m flattered that enough people thought it was worthy of that. But it’s a team thing. Everything we do is as a team. It was not a me thing. It was a we thing.”

From mid-August 2017 to April 2018, Keller was recovering from his brain injury. He works full-time at the Louisville base while his wife, an Army captain, is a veterinarian at Fort Knox caring for military service dogs.

Keller met his wife, the former Sarah Shatto, while the two of them were high school students. She graduated from Trinity High School in 2003. The couple has no children.

“I can’t think of anything else I want to do,” Keller said about his military career. “You’re constantly testing yourself. You’re always learning. My ability to get through the training and stay on course comes from the way my father raised me. It’s because of him.”

“We are always just thankful that God brought him back,” Jim Keller of Middlesex Township said of his son. “We are very proud of the choices that he made. For him, it has been a good career path.”

“We are always just thankful that God brought (Daniel) back. We are very proud of the choices that he made.
For him, it has been a good career path.” — Jim Keller, of Middlesex Township

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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