Defense Media Network

Combat Controller Robert Gutierrez to Receive the Air Force Cross

In a raging firefight in Afghanistan’s Herat province on Oct. 5, 2009, Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, Jr. took a wound and lost nearly half the blood in his body while bullets and rocket propelled grenades swirled around him. After a medic jammed a syringe into his collapsed lung, Gutierrez continued fighting. He is credited with saving the lives of a dozen U.S. soldiers in his Special Forces unit. The Special Forces troops were out to get the No. 2 Taliban commander in the region, but were pinned down and outgunned until Gutierrez set an example by refusing to die or to give up.

“I don’t know of another example of such extraordinary courage and persistence,” said retired Air Force Col. Bob Lind, a historian who studies awards and decorations. Told that Gutierrez was scheduled to receive the Air Force Cross on September 21, Lind said, “Some people believe this young man should be awarded the Medal of Honor.”

As the war in Afghanistan enters its eleventh year (on Oct. 7), Gutierrez will be only the fourth airman to receive the nation’s second highest award for valor during a combat action in that country. No one in the Air Force has been awarded the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.

 

Courageous Controller

Probably, no form of recognition is adequate for self-effacing, nine-year veteran Gutierrez. His longest day began when his team was sent into an Afghan village, circumventing roads strewn with improvised explosive devices. Gutierrez was in contact with a flight of F-16 Fighting Falcons in the area. He instructed them to loiter at a distance so the sound of their engines wouldn’t tip off the Taliban.

Once in the village, the assault force stormed a building and came under heavy fire. Gutierrez and a soldier killed a machinegun-toting insurgent while a reconnaissance aircraft overhead provided real-time information on other Taliban fighters, including a group approaching the building from the east. Gutierrez was communicating with the ISR craft when the rifle of a soldier beside him jammed. Gutierrez pushed the soldier out of the way and returned fire. He ducked into the building to get a better look at the insurgents. He popped out and traded fire with another insurgent on a rooftop. Gutierrez killed the insurgent but sustained a sucking chest wound that knocked him down, severely constricted his breathing, and built up pressure in his chest.

 

War Wound

Gutierrez later told Scott Fontaine of the trade journal Air Force Times that he knew exactly what was happening to him. When he tried to talk, blood gushed from his mouth and nose. “Gutierrez had seen an injury like this before,” Fontaine wrote. “He figured he had about three minutes before he bled out.”

That was when a quick-thinking medic took the painful and extreme measure that enabled Gutierrez to continue breathing – and fighting.

After the medic worked on him, amid the ongoing battle with its explosions, gunfire and RPG rounds, Gutierrez juggled the ISR aircraft, the F-16s, and a newly arrived flight of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, or Warthogs. He directed the F-16s to fly overhead and dispense flares to intimidate the Taliban fighters.

Gutierrez directed the A-10 flight to swoop in and attack the Taliban with their nose-mounted, GAU-8 30-mm cannon. This was a situation with zero tolerance for error. Gutierrez was instructing the “Hogs” to lay explosive shells the size of milk bottles into Taliban positions just 20 meters from the American troops.

The A-10s made two strafing runs. It was deafening. The impact was shattering. American officials would later learn that they’d achieved their goal, taking down the regional Taliban commander. Gutierrez, despite his grave wound, told the ground force commander that the best decision, now, would be to split the team to evacuate the wounded and use a third Warthog strafing run to provide cover.

Gutierrez’s part of the team had to make its way to a landing zone fully a mile from the firefight. Assisted by others and wavering in and out of consciousness, Gutierrez guided helicopters to the LZ. It took an hour for the rotorcraft to arrive. Gutierrez gave the aviators a situation report, made sure the other part of his team was still receiving air support, and finally slipped into unconsciousness, having lost half of the blood in his body.

The bullet that struck the tactical air controller broke two ribs, shattered a lung, and inflicted other damage. During his stay in hospitals following the battle, Gutierrez suffered infections on four occasions. Two years after his extraordinary heroic action – in which not a single American was killed – Gutierrez is now almost completely recovered and plans to remain in the Air Force.

 

Higher Honor?

Gutierrez, a native of Chula Vista, Calif., is one of five service members – all of whom enlisted after 9/11 – chosen to accompany Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Sept. 6 to ceremonies at the Pentagon, Shanksville, Penn., and ground zero in Manhattan where hijackers crashed airliners in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. According to a Pentagon spokesman, Panetta’s visit to the attack sites is meant as a remembrance of those who perished in the attacks and to emphasize the concept of service to the nation.

Gutierrez told reporters the visit to ground zero “reminded me why I enlisted.” Gutierrez said he tried to enlist the day after the attacks, but the recruiting stations were closed. When they reopened, a waiting list quickly formed because of the rush of people wanting to sign up for the military, he said. His own enlistment was final about six months after the attacks.

His fateful battle in Herat province was not Gutierrez’s first, nor was it the first time he has been decorated for valor. In January 2008, he was in a convoy that came under fire along a mountain road in Afghanistan. Gutierrez called in F-16s and A-10s.

When his team leader was incapacitated and another team member was wounded and stranded in the enemy kill zone, Gutierrez engaged and killed four insurgents with his M4 carbine. He orchestrated strafing runs, adding AH-64 Apache battlefield helicopters to the mix. Said the Air Force: “During the engagement, Sergeant Gutierrez synchronized air strikes, utilized UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and his team’s organic firepower to effectively incapacitate more than 240 insurgent enemy fighters including a ‘high-value target,’ the objective of the entire mission.” The exact date, location and names of other participants have not been released.

For this action, Gutierrez received the Bronze Star with “V” device, signifying valor.

After news of the pending Air Force Cross award appeared in Air Force Times and elsewhere, officials sought to keep a lid on it in order to announce the award at the Air Force Association convention scheduled for mid-month. Air Force Officials contacted for this article wouldn’t comment on any aspect of the Gutierrez story, but that didn’t prevent observers from suggesting that Gutierrez should receive the Medal of Honor instead. No airman has yet received the nation’s top award for valor for action in Afghanistan, but Gutierrez’s combat action is similar to two actions by enlisted airmen in Southeast Asia in the 1960s that earned the top award.

“This is one of several actions involving members in different service branches where the Medal of Honor is the only thing that fits the situation,” said Doug Sterner, a historian and leading expert on military medals. “The Pentagon has made the awards process too cumbersome and commanders are sometimes deterred from recommending the medal because of the paperwork and the required investigation.” Sterner said Gutierrez’s action is an exact fit for the language that appears in a citation when the medal is awarded – “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    A fine article. As the co-author of the book Uncommon Valor which gives the first ever complete history of the Medal of Honor and tells the story of most of the men who earned it in Afghanistan and Iraq, everything that I’ve read here certainly qualifies him for consideration for the Medal of Honor. The important thing to understand is that even in receiving the Air Force Cross (and not to denigrate that honor) that does not disqualify him for Medal of Honor recommendation. The key here is push from his commanding officer at the time. Everything stems from what he documented.

  • CARL E BOENIG SR

    He is just a true fIGHTING MAN As was stated he still can be recommended for the MEDAL OF HONOR Maybe the requirements to recieve this honor sure be published so people know what a hero this indivdual IS If he had preformed once it is great but this indivdual has done these heroics on a number of occasions I feel certain he was not doing these thing so he could earn the medals He felt he was just doing his job His aparent reasoning was to protect his fellow troops The risk to his own life was secondary A closer look MUST be made as to what awards he has earned

  • Giovanni Catanese

    In my 30 years in the Air Force I’ve read many citations of individuals who earned the Medal of Honor (MOH) and even met a few of the recipients. All displayed extraordinary courage and selfless actions above and beyond the call of duty.
    SSgt Gutierrez’s heroic actions were not just a single example of gallantry under fire to protect his fellow service members rather a testament of duty, honor, and country also displayed in other circumstances. In my view, clearly he’s is no less deserving of the MOH than those who earned it in recent years in the same combat areas.
    SSgt Gutierrez’s extraordinary heroics are a testament to the highest ideals of the U.S. military men and women who daily risk their lives to uphold this country’s values and ideals. I call for another look as to why he’s been considered for just the Air Force Cross and not the MOH. I honestly hope there are no politics involved….if so, it would be a shame.
    CMSgt Giovanni Catanese, USAF Ret

  • CARL E BOENIG SR

    CMS/gt CATANESE If you check out the previous report it says something about his CO putting in additional paperwork His CO should be more that proud to even have a man in his command with this type of courage It could be as you stated some form of polotics No matter what the outcome be WE NOW KNOW what a hero this fighting man is

  • CARL E BOENIG SR

    I hold my oldest brother in high esteem because he was in the fourth wave an OMAHA BEACH earned the SILVER STAR –the BRONZE STAR–and the POW MEDALS He too would not accept in joking tell the true story of what actually happened He mostly spoke of the better times he had gone through He too was cheated as his son unwittingly buried him without military honors

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    What stands out for me is that, in the three minutes of life he thought he had left, he was fighting to help save the lives of his comrades, rather than fighting to save his own. How many among us would do the same?

  • This exceptional soldier should receive the medal of honor because in deadly combat action he gave all he could give and much more than was asked or expected. What description better describes the Medal of Honor?

  • Col Chuck Martin

    A true American hero – an Airman who has earned the MOH based on his actions on this specific incident. We need to recognize this heroic act or acts – and the individual who was selfless in his actions

  • From my Belgian point of view,Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez surely deserves the Medal od Honor
    Philippe SAVE in Brussels
    WWII Air War Researcher

  • This young man and fellow Air Force brother, acted selfless in the face of the enemy. With only 3 minutes to live, according to his thoughts, he only thought of protecting his fellow soldiers, what kind of man thinks in that manner? Men like this need to be honored like they have in the past, with the Medal of Honor. I for one, as a fellow Desert Storm Veteran, offer my prayers for a speedy recovery and a large thank you and salute sir, for not being just an being an elite soldier but being a elite human for the greatest nation on the planet!

  • Robert E. Hildner

    Based on the article, there is compelling evidence for the award of the MOH. The ball is in his commander’s court. Let’s hope he runs with it.

  • Talk about personal sacrifice ! Completing the mission and protecting his fellow
    Soldiers while DYING . If that isn’t a MOH I don’t know what would be !

  • Here is an example of today’s Airman, ready to sacrifice his life, many times, to save his team. “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY”. SSGT Gutierrez’s heroics exemplify the characteristics of one who should receive the Medal of Honor.

  • As CCT’s defacto historian I can tell you that Robert Gutierrrez is a true American hero and his actions merit the Medal of Honor. I am aware of his other exploits and they have all been “ABOVE AND BEYOND”. But the most recent exploit was surely in the Medal of Honor category. All the great words that appear above will not be repeated here. They speak for themselves, and I concur with all.

  • In this week’s AFT column by Robert F. Dorr, he writes that “Awarding Medal of Honor to Airman would begin to restore Balance.”

    I agree but “balance” is not the correction needed… it is deservedness. SSgt Robert Gutierrez’ actions in all matters of qualification including unselfishness, bravery, courageousness and dedication to his fellow combatants in spite of risk to his life and near-mortal wounds, unequivocally deserves the Nation’s highest honor for actions on the battlefield. If this NCO’s heroic actions do not deserve the award, then what in the blue perfect hell does? Resultant death should not be a qualifier, its imminence should, and rightly so.

    I will not debate here that his actions compare to or exceed the most heroic of other honored serviceman’s actions, or that our Airmen are seldom recognized, at this level, for comparable actions of other service members or that our USAF leaders are wont to recommend enlisted Airmen for this honor, (only three have been awarded this honor in 64 years of USAF history).

    These comparisons aside, the unquestionable heroic actions, in combat, of this man and his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one’s life above and beyond the call of duty” deserve the recognition of our Nations leaders by awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

    I, also ask that his unit leadership not delay and upgrade his proposed nomination for The Air Force Cross to the Congressional Medal of Honor.

  • Whitney Philbrick

    For what it’s worth, I believe that this mans actions deserve the Medal of Honor.

  • God Bless you, I appreciate all you have done to keep our country safe.
    Mary G.

  • Maurice Rockett

    To offer him a Brong Star was an insult, for they hand out these medals like toys from a Cracker Jack box. For shame.! Yes, he deserves The Medal of Honor. However, his greatst award was a caontnuance of life, and he lives on knowing he did his very best.

  • Maurice Rockett

    Plese correct my unforgivable error, that is.a “Bronze” Star is what I am referencing.

  • Based on earlier posts, it appears that some are confusing Gutierrrez’s earlier (Bronze Star with V-device) combat action – of April 6, 2008 – with the ongoing Air Force Cross (Medal of Honor) action of October 5, 2009. They are two different operations. The following is from the Congressional Record.

    SILVER STAR RECIPIENTS — (Senate – May 11, 2009)

    [Page: S5322] GPO’s PDF

    Mr. DORGAN. Madam President, on Thursday I was privileged to host a bipartisan lunch of the Senate Democratic and Republican policy committees, in honor of a team of Green Berets who earned the Silver Star for extraordinary bravery in combat operations in Afghanistan. These are true American heroes, and their actions were in the proudest traditions of our Armed Forces in general, and of our Special Operations forces in particular.

    On April 6, 2008, this team’s mission was to capture or kill several very high-ranking members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, HIG, militant group. The insurgents were in their stronghold, a village perched in Nuristan’s Shok Valley that is normally accessible only by pack mule.

    During a harrowing, nearly 7-hour battle on a mountainside, this team and a few dozen Afghan commandos they had trained took fire from all directions. Outnumbered, the Green Berets fought on even after half of them were wounded–and managed to kill an estimated 150 to 200 enemy fighters.

    For their heroism in battle, 10 members of Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 from the 3rd Special Forces Group received the Silver Star, one of the highest awards for valor in the U.S. Military. This was the highest number of such awards for a single engagement since the Vietnam war.

    The men who earned these Silver Stars were CPT Kyle Walton, SFC Scott Ford, SSG Luis Morales, SSG Seth Howard, SSG Ronald Shurer, SSG John Walding, SSG Dillon Behr, SGT David Sanders, SGT Matthew Williams, and SPC Michael Carter.

    I will ask to have printed in the Record a copy of their Silver Star citations. I will also ask to have printed in the Record a copy of a Washington Post report describing the battle on that Afghan mountainside.

    Mr. President, as I mentioned earlier, it was our privilege to honor these heroic Green Berets, who were joined at the lunch by SSG Robert Gutierrez, Jr., an Air Force special tactics combat controller who targeted airstrikes during the mission. For his actions, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor.

    No words can truly express the depth of our gratitude to these men and all the other members of our Armed Forces who have answered their country’s call.

    Madam President, I ask unanimous consent to have the materials to which I referred printed in the Record.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record.

  • As the Secretary of the Air Force from 2001 to 2005, I and General John Jumper had the high honor of awarding the Air Force Cross to two absolutely remarkable Special Tactics Airmen, both of whom died in combat at Roberts Ridge in Afghanistan alongside other members of Special Forces whom they were trying to save. The Air Force Cross is an extraordinary medal in and of itself, and those who believe that Staff Sergeant Gutierrez should be awarded the Medal of Honor need not believe that he is getting shortchanged. There seems little doubt that his bravery warrants a close look at being awarded a MOH. Knowing the officers and civilians involved in such decisions, I have firm faith in their judgement.
    What is really important here is the fact that a remarkable young American gave everything and more to fight an enemy with his weapon and a radio, controlling the air power of our Air Force, all the while dealing with what he thought might be his final minutes on earth. We should salute him and beam with the pride his bravery gives to his fellow countrymen, his family, and his brothers in Special Forces and Special Tactics. That he lives to receive whatever medal he is to receive is a gift from God to all of us Americans.
    James G. Roche

  • With all due respect, Mr. Secretary many of us do believe Sergeant Gutierrez should be nominated for the MOH and was shortchanged. The glaring indicator is that in spite of the clear meeting of the highest criteria of bravery, courage, selfishness and willingness to put his near mortally wounded self above and beyond his own safety and in the line of fire and death to be instrumental in the survival of his comrades, he was not even nominated for the MOH.

    His leaders chose to nominate him for award of the AF Cross. He clearly earned and deserved to be nominated for the MOH as the first nomination not some catchup, afterthought or reconsidered nomination as the result of media or public heat.

    Our AF has got to step into the current century and convince itself of it’s own “Warrior ethos” that it brags about and actually recognize that there already those among us that are true non-flyer combat heros and deserve the highest of recognition, when deserved, such as Sergeant Gutierrez.

    V/R

  • “Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” I cannot conceive of where Sgt Guttierrez does not fully meet this qualification. He has fully earned the respect of his fellow soldiers and countrymen and surely deserves the honor of nomination for the MoH. When one considers his actions in comparison to those that have been so honored previously for theirs, one cannot help but conclude this, in my opinion.

  • With all due respect to Secretary Roche, this type of thinking is the reason it took decades to fix the error done to Pitsenbarger’s family. The Air Force has had a history of short-changing the enlisted men (and women) in the area of medals. What I read about what this SSgt did is at least equal to recent MoH recipients’ exploits. He at least deserved to be considered. As it now stands, it looks to most of us like his leadership thought, “Well, we know we can get him the AF Cross, so let’s just put him in for that.” Even if that is not the reality, the AF needs to deal with the perception, and in my joint office, even the Army guys are going, “WTF?”

  • If not this, then WHAT…? There cannot be a better example of an American Warrior more deserving of the MOH. Call and write your Congress and Senate politicians and request the reevaluation of this decision. The MOH is deserved by this man and his valorous actions.

  • MAN why just medals?? Wouldn’t he deserve to live the rest of his life HUGH award?

  • I do not disagree with any of the comments posted save one… That no other Airmen is as deserving of the MOH. I speak directly about the two Airmen Secretary Roche mentions. SrA Jason Cunninghman and TSgt. John Chapman. If you are unfamiliar with their stories, do a search. Both sacrificed their own lives to save those of their team… SrA Cunningham directly saved the lives of ten people. He crossed the direct line of fire 7 times to move patients, and continued treating patients despite his wounds, wounds he knew (as a trained medic) were fatal. When he could no longer physically care for his patients, he directed their treatment. I do not say this to minimize the clear display of bravery and self-sacrifice displayed by SSgt. Gutierrez, only to highlight the equally deserving actions displayed by two other Airmen.

  • David Christensen

    This should have been a no-brainer a long time ago! There is no question his bravery is AT LEAST at a level of many of the earlier recipients!

  • Thank you for your support of Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez (GZ). He was nominated and (it’s official now) approved for the Air Force Cross medal for his extraordinary heroism in combat. One of our Combat Control Association (CCA) members sent me an email asking why GZ wasn’t condidered for the MOH… my reply was because he didn’t die. For some reason, since 9/11, that seemed to be the most important criteria for award of the MOH. I was told a meeting took place a couple of months ago with top DoD officials and the MOH Society. They discussed the reason why only KIAs were getting the MOH and decided to look more favorably on living nominees. It was also pointed out that the MOH Society would die off soon without new recipients. That meeting must have changed their mindset as President Obama bestowed the MOH on a former (living) Marine Sgt. this week and an Army Ranger last month.

    Maybe it was unfortunate that GZ was submitted for the Air Force Cross (AFC) before that meeting took place or perhaps he would have been submitted for the MOH. In any case, I have become friends with GZ and know he’ll be proud to recieve whatever medal they award him on behalf of those teammates he fought with. GZ is as humble a hero as I’ve ever met and he doesn’t volunteer to go into battle for medals, but to fight for our country and our freedoms.

    We (CCA) are extremely proud of him as he becomes the most highly decorated U.S. Air Force Combat Controller in our history with the award of the AFC, three Bronze Stars with Valor and the Purple Heart.

    Respectfully yours,
    Wayne

    Wayne G. Norrad, CMSgt, USAF, Retired
    President, Combat Control Association

  • TWIMC , I think this Brave Airman , went “Above and BEYOND THE CALL ” and should be awarded THE CMH , Please get on his Band Wagon , He’s Truly Worthy . Thank You. To whom should I contact to further his cause ?

  • You can encourage every one you know to contact Senator John McCain with your own comments on this recommendation. I also encourage all the AF Special Tactics guys to do the same….here:
    http://mccain.senate.gov/public/inde…ct.ContactForm
    or:
    U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator John McCain, Ranking Member: Main Phone Number: 202-224-3871

    Write the Air Force Times in reply to Robert Dorr’s article. Here: airlet@gannettgov.com Attn: Jacqueline Campbell, Editorial Assistant

  • Sgt. Gutierrez is a true American hero. The valor that Sgt. Gutierrez has shown is deserving of the highest honor awarded by the military. His bravery merits the MEDAL OF HONOR.

  • As a former member of U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), I worked side by side with the men of USAFSOC ( In Herat province as a matter of fact). Whether they were JTACs, TACPs, or CCT guys, they were all extemely proficient with their skills. Great bunch of guys. ODAs normally don’t take kindly to outsiders EXCEPT when it comes to the outstanding men of USAFSOC. Way to go SSG. Guteirrez

  • Mr. Dorr, thank you, so much, for being an advocate for the nomination of Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, Jr for the MOH.

    It’s a sad commentary that of the millions who have served in the past ten years of conflict in the WOT that so very few nominations for the MOH have been made, and a service shame that so many of our AF SPECOPs people have been wounded or killed in heroic actions against the enemy and not one, alive or dead, has received the Nations highest honor.

    The USAF, because of it’s “Obstructionism”, being possibly made up of perceived excuses such as too much effort, too difficult to investigate, not the pilot, officer image, not an action associated with the AF primary mission of flying, just enlisted ground ops, or even personal image, PT profile or any other obscure, negative criteria is quickly gaining the reputation of a prejudiced, discriminatory, not-in-touch-with-the-reality-of-this-conflict service.

    That image, quite possibly, will be the historical perception of our AF and show that we learned nothing about the shortcomings of AF thinking and its affect on enlisted awards during the Vietnam war and are about to magnify that fact during this conflict.

    Now is the time for this negative image to be changed, for the Air Force to do a thorough review of previous officer and enlisted awards for heroism.

    Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, Jr. deserves that review, now, and reconsideration for the award of the MOH.

  • Mr. Dorr, I echo ChiefB’s comments and truly appreaciate your efforts in furthering the cause of a Medal of Honor Award for SSgt Robert Gutierrez. I received this word today from a friend who has a strong interest in the subject “…Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) has already written the Secretary of Defense asking for a comprehensive review of award citations to determine if the Medal of Honor is warranted.”

  • David Christensen

    This should be a real slam dunk, no brainer! Believing he had three minutes of life left, he was fighting to help his comrades, not a second for his own safety. This is, without question, as good as it gets. This is truly the Creme de la Creme of courage! When the other incidents are added in, this man is indead a giant among all those that came before him. To not bestow upon him the Medal of Honor would be a great disservice – to him AND his country!

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    That’s the key thing for me. Thinking he was going to die Gutierrez chose, in what he thought were his last moments, to do whatever he could to help his comrades.