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Honoring Robert Gutierrez

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Today, Air Force Special Operations Command Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez, Jr. was awarded the Air Force Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor (the highest being the Congressional Medal of Honor). AEI’s Michael Auslin has a wonderful account in which he paints a vivid and poingnant picture of Gutierrez’s selfless and heroic actions. Though the entire article is well worth reading, some excerpts follow:

On October 5, 2009, Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez was shot through the chest during a fierce firefight in a muddy village in western Afghanistan. Gutierrez, a 29-year old Special Forces Combat Controller, was coordinating air support for an Army Special Forces team sent after a high value Taliban target. Ignoring a sucking chest wound and collapsed lung, Gutierrez continued directing aerial attacks, almost certainly saving the lives of nearly 30 outnumbered American and Afghan forces….

That firefight near Herat city that October night initially was no different from any of the other hazardous operations Gutierrez conducted. That week alone, the father of a newborn and the Army team he was a part of had conducted three raids before setting out to the village. After walking over a mile from their vehicles, they reached the compound and immediately began taking sustained heavy fire, including rocket-propelled grenades. While talking with two F-16s overhead, getting information on the location of insurgents, Gutierrez had to fight at close range with shooters surrounding him and his team. The firefight raged for three and a half hours, Gutierrez told me, but the entire mission, from beginning to his medical evacuation at the end, took nearly seven exhausting hours.

Pinned down by enemy fire, SSgt Gutierrez took over from a soldier whose weapon had jammed. As he took out an insurgent firing at them from a rooftop, Gutierrez was struck. The bullet plowed through his upper chest, just missing his heart, and collapsing his lung. Gutierrez was coughing up blood and couldn’t breathe. He had seen men die of wounds like this before, he relates, and thought that he would bleed out within three minutes.

What did you think about when you realized you would probably die, I asked? “I thought about [my job], what I would do before I bled out. That I would change the world in those three minutes, I’d do everything I could to get my guys out safely before I died,” he replies.

Gutierrez refused to leave the fight because only he could talk with and direct the airplanes that were quickly becoming their salvation. An Army medic inserted a seven-inch needle, without anesthetic, into Gutierrez’s chest in order to inflate his lung. That allowed him to get back on the radio calling for help from above even while bleeding profusely and in extreme pain.

The Americans were being fired upon by Taliban standing on top of a 20-foot wall just ten feet from Gutierrez. After fly-bys from F-16s failed to dislodge them, Gutierrez directed a strafing run by an A-10 gunship. The A-10’s bullets were fired so close to the Americans that Gutierrez’s eardrum burst. After another pass, Gutierrez and the team leader, who also was wounded, decided their target was incapacitated and that it was time to withdraw.

Directing a final strafing run, Gutierrez picked up his blood-soaked equipment and began trudging over a mile back to the team’s vehicles. He radioed for emergency evacuation, suffered another collapsed lung, waited for the helicopter to arrive, and then finally passed out. He did all this while losing half of his blood—over five pints. Remarkably, and due largely to his directing air support, no American forces were killed on the mission. In fact, Gutierrez was the worst wounded of all.