HomeNewsArticle Display

Air Force Cross recipient: 3 minutes to change the world

Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr., Air Force Special Operations Command combat controller, during a deployment to Afghanistan. Gutierrez was awarded the Air Force Cross, announced by Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz Sept. 20, 2011 at the Air Force Association convention in Washington D.C. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo)

Air Force Special Operations Command combat controller Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez was awarded the Air Force Cross as announced by Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz Sept. 20, 2011. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- As the only qualified joint terminal attack controller in an operation Oct. 5, 2009, an Air Force Special Operations Command combat controller knew the ground situation would be dire if he died. As an armor-piercing round entered his left shoulder and wreaked havoc throughout his chest, he said his focus wasn't on his young family in North Carolina. It was on his team.

"I've seen those types of injuries before and time isn't your friend," said the Air Force Cross recipient Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr. "I thought -- I have three minutes before I'm going to die. I've got to do something big. Based on that time frame, I'm going to change the world in three minutes."

The team of 30 U.S. Army Special Forces and Afghan National Army commandos was surrounded in a "Taliban-sympathetic village" in the Herat province of Afghanistan. According to officials' reports, enemy fighters were positioned on rooftops just 10-feet from the team's position inside a neighboring building. Gutierrez was shot during the 4-hour firefight that included sniper and small-arms fire as well as rocket propelled grenades.

As the combat controller, Gutierrez was the only qualified radio operator communicating with Airmen overhead to provide close-air support and real-time battlefield surveillance that was critical for the team mission and to be able to evacuate their wounded.

"Combat controllers are the air-to-ground interface, bringing the firepower and communications links to the ground force commander," Gutierrez said. "We bring an extraordinary amount of firepower in a small package (that is) able to shoot, move and communicate at the same time."

Believing he was about to die, the San Diego native refused to remove his body armor, which held his radio, despite two medics repeatedly ordering him to take it off so his wounds could be treated. Gutierrez only relented momentarily, allowing the medic to insert a needle decompression tube just below his collar bone.

A sucking chest wound, which is common in gunshot victims, fills the chest cavity with blood, collapsing the lungs. The medic's procedure released the growing pressure on his collapsed lung, allowing Gutierrez to breathe and speak -- so he got back on the radio. He continued to advise the ground force commander and request close air support of F-16 Fight Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs overhead.

The A-10 pilot said Gutierrez's voice was calm the entire time, and he only knew of his injuries when the team was moving to the medical evacuation landing zone.

"I realized he was shot after the third (and final) strafe pass," said Capt. Ethan Sabin, then assigned to the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. "He said he would be off of the 'mic' for a few to handle his gunshot wounds. Until that point he was calm, cool and collected."

Gutierrez was awarded the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism, superb Airmanship and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, according to the medal citation. Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz announced the award Sept. 20 during the Air Force Association convention in National Harbor, Md.

"There is no doubt his heroic action under extremely dangerous circumstances and despite being wounded, saved the lives of his teammates," said Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, the AFSOC commander. "His courage and character is unsurpassed. While I know he is a humble person that does not seek the spotlight, he is so deserving of the Air Force Cross. His actions are just a snapshot of what AFSOC Airmen are doing everyday in our current theater of operations."

In all, Gutierrez incurreed a gunshot wound to the upper shoulder and triceps muscle, left chest and lateral muscle that resulted in two broken ribs, s broken scapula, softball-sized hole in his back, collapsed lung and multiple blood infections, which required three chest tubes, three blood transfusions and seven surgeries. To top it off, the "danger-close" 30 mm strafing runs ruptured both of his ear drums.

Despite losing five pints of blood and walking 1.5 kilometers, Gutierrez stayed on the radio calling for his own medical evacuation and ensuring surveillance coverage for the safe return of the ground force team.

Gutierrez credits the U.S. Army Special Forces medic and Air Force A-10 pilot with saving their lives. During an interview in early 2010, Gutierrez said, "I don't care if I get an award or not. The team was outstanding. I'm just a product of what I've been taught and a product of AFSOC."

Since Sept. 11 there have been four Air Force Cross medals awarded, all to AFSOC Airmen. Gutierrez is the second living-recipient to receive the medal. Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner was awarded the Air Force Cross while assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, Pope Field, N.C., as a combat controller for combat operations April 6, 2008, in Nuristan province of Afghanistan. Gutierrez was also a teammate during that operation and received the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and Purple Heart.

Gutierrez was assigned to the 21 STS during the 2009 operation and is currently assigned to the Air Force Special Operations Training Center here instructing future special tactics Airmen, so that they may be "First There...That Others May Live."

Engage

Facebook Twitter
RT @AF_WSOC: 👀 who popped up with the big dogs on TopDrawerSoccer’s Top 40 Ranked Recruiting Classes for 2019! Excited to have these fresh…
For saving two fellow wingmen while deployed in Afghanistan, Tech. Sgt. Nick Torres received two bronze star medals… https://t.co/83bcAvqCxG
RT @DefenceHQ: Today the various NATO aircraft flypast at #RIAT19 to mark the 70th anniversary of NATO! Since its creation, NATO has been…
The @DeptofDefense has partnered with the @DeptVetAffairs to implement the first Women's Health Transition Training… https://t.co/JUTFicsXDw
⚡️ “Apollo 11 50th anniversary” https://t.co/GSeJYz6wPJ
The 413th Flight Test Sq. @TeamEglin successfully conducted the 1st #USAF piloted flight of the #HH60W Combat Rescu… https://t.co/wTyTtcmZjv
Jetting into the weekend like... #F16 https://t.co/wEWD7vr476
.@AstroHague showing his #USAF pride during the anniversary week of the #Apollo50 landing. @ISS_Researchhttps://t.co/WdgCFDmz6f
'Only two of us were not shot or dying': #USAF #Airman receives Silver Star for heroism in Afghanistan heroism… https://t.co/IdmKq8gtDx
RT @AFResearchLab: Dr. Lisa Rueschhoff was one of 82 engineers chosen to attend @theNAEng 2019 U.S. Frontiers of Engineering Symposium! Sh…
RT @ActingSecAF: .@GenDaveGoldfein is bolstering partners & #allies across Europe, discussing how we can be #StrongerTogether in air, #spac
Annual recovery efforts have helped to identify 40 of the 52 service members lost when a C-124 crashed into Mount G… https://t.co/fdHUY2IATf
8 of the surviving #Apollo #Astronauts got together for the 50th anniversary of the #moonlanding. @NASAhttps://t.co/szPJHXupa1
RT @HQUSAFEPA: Gen. Goldfein, during his keynote address at the 2019 Chief of the Air Staff's Air and Space Power Conference said the follo…
.@WrightPattAFB opened a #cyberdefense facility for #USAF Life Cycle Management Center's Fighters & Bombers Directo… https://t.co/QibdORLX2q
RT @GenDaveGoldfein: Our asymmetric advantage is represented in this room. It is all of us working together on a common cause. Great to see…
.@AFResearchLab supports @AFThunderbirds w/cutting-edge aerospace #technology. From G-suits, custom earpieces, fly-… https://t.co/HJ07fLg2aP
Operating from rough dirt strips, the #C130 Hercules is capable of transporting & airdropping troops & equipment in… https://t.co/c4vsC76vRX