As they prepared for the helicopter assault in volatile eastern Afghanistan, the team of American and Afghan special-forces soldiers was told it might encounter 10 to 15 enemy fighters on the ground.

But when the sun rose over Laghman Province that day two years ago, the men found themselves taking machine-gun fire from a force of more than 100.

"It turned into a battle of survival," Maryland Air National Guard Capt. Barry F. Crawford Jr. said Wednesday. "The enemy was completely around us. They had called in reinforcements, and they were using the terrain to their advantage."

During the 14-hour firefight, Crawford ventured into open ground to radio a helicopter to evacuate wounded soldiers, to overcome an ambush by firing on enemy positions and to call in more than 40 airstrikes.

For those actions on May 4, 2010, Crawford is to be awarded the Air Force Cross. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz will pin the medal on Crawford during a ceremony Thursday at the Pentagon.

The Air Force Cross is the second-highest decoration an airman may receive, after the Medal of Honor. Crawford will be the fifth recipient since Sept. 11, 2001.

Lt. Col. Parks Hughes, who was Crawford's commander in the 21st Special Tactics Squadron of the Air Force, said "multiple participants" in the firefight provided sworn statements "that painted a consistent and compelling picture of Captain Crawford's technical expertise and exceptional courage under fire."

"They credited his decisive actions with enabling the U.S. ground force and their Afghan partners to survive and escape an extremely dire situation," Hughes said.

After eight years of active duty, Crawford joined the Maryland Air National Guard last year.

"It's bigger than me," the 31-year-old Air Force Academy graduate said of the honor he will receive. "I wouldn't be here today if my ... teammates, the Afghan commandos who were fighting, didn't go above and beyond for that 14 hours."

Now a member of the 104th Fighter Squadron of the Maryland air guard, Crawford has been commuting to Warfield Air National Guard Base in Middle River from Philadelphia. He plans to move to Maryland after he completes training to become a pilot.

For the next two years, he will learn to fly the A-10, which provides air support for ground troops by attacking enemy troops, tanks and other targets — the kind of aircraft he has called in as a ground-based combat controller.

"I witnessed firsthand as the enemy fighters saw it and they backed off," Crawford said. "So when that opportunity was offered to me, I jumped at it."

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