By Air Force Capt. Kristen D. Duncan
Air Force Special Operations Command
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla., Sept. 27, 2011 – When Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr. was shot in the chest during a mission in Afghanistan, he knew he may have only minutes to live. He also knew that as the only qualified joint terminal attack controller there, he had to stay alive for the sake of his battle buddies.
Gutierrez recovered from his wounds from two years ago, and recently was awarded the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, according to the medal citation. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, announced the award Sept. 20 during the Air Force Association convention in National Harbor, Md.
Gutierrez was a Special Operations Command combat controller on Oct. 5, 2009, when an armor-piercing round entered his left shoulder and wreaked havoc throughout his chest.
"I've seen those types of injuries before, and time isn't your friend," he said later. "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 army commandos was surrounded in a Taliban-sympathetic village in western Afghanistan’s Herat province. According to official reports, enemy fighters were positioned on rooftops just 10 feet from the team's position inside a neighboring building. Gutierrez was shot during the four-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 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 collarbone.
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 – enough so that he got back on the radio. He continued to advise the ground force commander and request close air support of F-16 Fighting 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 Air Force 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."
"There is no doubt his heroic action under extremely dangerous circumstances, and despite being wounded, [he] saved the lives of his teammates," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. "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 incurred a gunshot wound to the upper shoulder and triceps and left chest and lateral muscle that resulted in two broken ribs, a broken scapula, a softball-sized hole in his back, a collapsed lung and multiple blood infections, which required three chest tubes, three blood transfusions and seven surgeries. To top it off, the 30 mm strafing runs ruptured both of his eardrums.
Despite losing five pints of blood and walking about a mile, 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 Special Forces medic and an A-10 pilot with saving their lives. "I don't care if I get an award or not,” he said in a 2010 interview. “The team was outstanding. I'm just a product of what I've been taught and a product of AFSOC."
Since 9/11, four Air Force Cross medals have been 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 Air Force Base, N.C., for actions as a combat controller April 6, 2008, in eastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Gutierrez was a teammate during that operation and received the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and the Purple Heart.
Gutierrez was assigned to the 21 STS during the 2009 operation and now is assigned to the Air Force Special Operations Training Center here, instructing future special tactics airmen.