By Scott Fontaine - Staff writer
Air Force Times
Posted: Saturday Sep 17, 2011 9:48:05 EDT
Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez felt the pressure building in his chest. He couldn't breathe. When he tried to talk, blood gushed from his mouth and nose. Gunfire popped and rocket-propelled grenades exploded nearby.
Gutierrez had seen an injury like this before. He figured he had about three minutes before he bled out.
"At that point, I decided I'm not going to be a burden to the rest of my team," he said. "I'm not going to be dead weight to them. I'm going to do as much as I can, as long as I can, until it's over."
Oct. 5, 2009, is the day Gutierrez is convinced he would have died if a medic hadn't jabbed a syringe into his collapsed lung.
Minutes later, Gutierrez himself saved the lives of a dozen U.S. soldiers in the Army Special Forces unit he was assigned to as a combat controller.
The firefight had high stakes: the Taliban's No. 2 commander in the region. The troops won. They killed the commander.
Gutierrez's extraordinary bravery and unwavering dedication that night nearly two years ago have thrust him in the spotlight. He is nominated for an Air Force Cross, the second-highest award for valor; the citation simply needs the signature of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
Assuming Donley approves the honor, Gutierrez will receive the medal next week at the Air Force Association's annual conference in suburban Washington, D.C. Gutierrez would be the fourth recipient of the Air Force Cross for actions in Afghanistan, and the first since then-Senior Airman Zachary Rhyner received the honor in 2009.
Gutierrez spoke with Air Force Times from Hurlburt Field, Fla., where he now is an instructor at the Air Force Special Operations Training Center.
The nine-year veteran described the quick mission planning, calling in close-air support and the long recovery after the mission. He shrugged off any sense of personal heroism.
"The highlights are really the medic saving my life, the F-16s and the A-10s providing support," he said. "I'm here today because of them."
The troops had less than two hours to prepare for the mission.
Gutierrez and his fellow members of the Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha received word they would attack the house where the Taliban's deputy commander in Herat province was staying.
They gathered Afghan troops and waited until nightfall to head out. The team drove to a spot about four kilometers from the village. The roads were heavily mined, too dangerous to drive; besides, the troops wanted the element of surprise.
The village was full of Taliban fighters and sympathizers. It wouldn't be an easy mission.
"We knew we were going to get into it," he said.
Gutierrez was in touch with a flight of F-16s not far off. He kept the fighters away so the sound of the engine roar wouldn't tip off the Taliban. An intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft circled overhead, providing footage of the battlefield.
All was quiet as the assault force approached the target. The soldiers knocked down the door and poured into the house. Almost instantly, small-arms gunfire from the rooftops rained down.
"As soon as that breach went off, it was game on," he said.
Gutierrez was in the second stack and provided cover fire. He and a soldier noticed heavy machine-gun fire coming from a nearby alleyway. They shot the insurgent and provided cover fire as the rest of the team entered the building.
The ISR plane provided an update: Several Taliban fighters had taken positions on rooftops to the east and south. Others were coming on foot from the east toward the building.
Gutierrez was communicating with the aircraft. At one point, a soldier's rifle jammed. Gutierrez stepped in and began firing.
"Instead of letting him sit there as an easy target," he said, "I pushed him out of the way and got in front of him and returned fire."
Twice, Gutierrez went a few feet outside the building to see where the fire was coming from. He hoped a show of force would drive away the Taliban fighters. Two F-16s roared past "at an extremely low altitude," but the shooting didn't stop.
Gutierrez then spotted a shooter on a nearby rooftop. The two traded fire. Gutierrez felt instant pain and pressure in his left side. He fired back and watched the gunman crumple. He shot another Taliban fighter.
"I don't get paid to sit there and fall down," he said. "I get paid to fight and do my job."
Gutierrez hadn't realized how badly he was hurt. A bullet pierced his left shoulder, hit his shoulder blade, ricocheted off his ribs and came out his back, leaving a hole the size of two softballs.
Blood gushed, and the pain became worse. He dropped to one knee.
"I've never felt like that in my life," he said. "It felt like someone hit me with a big baseball bat in the side of my ribs but at a million mph."
He yelled for the team's medic. The enemy fire became heavier. The Taliban fighters began firing RPGs.
Explosions and gunfire rang out. Troops were yelling. Others were injured. The medic was trying to get Gutierrez's attention. The airman was trying to talk to the airplanes.
"I'm talking to [the medic], trying to tell him where it hurts," he said. "He's trying to ask me questions. But I have two F-16s that are low on fuel, I have an ISR platform telling me that we have multiple fighters coming in. We have additional fighters on the first and second floor of the target building. They're all armed. They're all moving toward our location. The rest of the team is trying to hold down security and fend them off."
The pressure began to build in his chest. Breathing became shallower and more difficult. Blood streamed from his mouth and nose.
That's when Gutierrez realized he could likely die.
"I've seen similar injuries, guys shot in their side," he said. "Usually, it's very fast. Time is not your friend in this instance."
Third time's a charm
Gutierrez could no longer talk to the F-16s. He couldn't say much to the medic.
The medic told Gutierrez that he probably had a punctured lung and the only option was a needle decompression. He wanted to take off Gutierrez's armor, but the airman balked: His radio was attached to his kit, and he couldn't lose contact with the planes.
The medic took a syringe, reached under Gutierrez's armor and pushed the needle in his chest. It relieved the pressure within seconds.
Gutierrez contacted the Falcons overhead and called for another show of force — this time with flares.
The F-16s roared past, but the gunfire didn't stop. The jets were running low on fuel, and a flight of A-10s was minutes away.
The Taliban fighters had moved to within 10 yards of the building — far too close for a bomb or Hellfire missile.
Gutierrez suggested the A-10s strafe using their 30mm cannons.
"The only other option is to fight our way out," he said.
Gutierrez called in the strike. The A-10 pilot couldn't believe what he was hearing; Gutierrez had to confirm that the Warthog would be firing within 10 yards of American troops.
The A-10 prepared for its gun run, and everyone inside the building hit the floor. The sound of the cannons firing blew out Gutierrez's eardrums.
"He just annihilated them with that first strike," he said. "It was deafening."
Enemy gunfire started again seconds later, and Gutierrez called in a second strike. Explosions followed — perhaps materials stockpiled to make roadside bombs.
Gutierrez told the ground-force commander the best option would be to split the team to evacuate the wounded and use a third A-10 strike as cover. The commander agreed.
For a third time, a Warthog opened fire with its 30mm cannon.
The Taliban guns fell silent.
"You can't get any better," Gutierrez said. "I couldn't ask for anything better."
Up for another fight
Part of the team left the building and escaped down a nearby alley. A helicopter landing zone was a few hundred yards away, but the Italian and Spanish forces operating nearby wouldn't land because of the gunfire.
The second landing zone was more than a mile away. The troops began marching.
Gutierrez passed along their coordinates to help provide air cover for the medical evacuation helicopters, but the gunshot wound was taking its toll. He faded in and out of consciousness. At one point, he thought he felt water streaming down his arm. It was blood.
The troops waited more than an hour for the helicopters. When the helos arrived, Gutierrez gave a situation update to the senior warrant officer onboard and made sure the team in the village had air cover for the rest of the mission.
Then, after losing more than half the blood in his body, Gutierrez passed out.
He woke up as medical officials were transporting him into the hospital at Herat. Later, he went from the Herat hospital to Bagram Air Base to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, and finally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The bullet broke two ribs, collapsed a lung and wreaked havoc throughout his body. He contracted four infections in the following weeks and had to have three chest tubes put in.
Gutierrez spent about a month at Walter Reed, and it took about 18 months to recover.
Throughout his recovery, Gutierrez took pride in the mission outcome: The No. 2 Taliban commander was killed, and the intelligence gathered led to the death of the top Taliban commander in Herat province. No Americans lost their lives.
Gutierrez now trains the next generation of combat controllers. And although his injuries have prevented him from returning to Afghanistan, he won't rule out a return to combat.
"If there's an opening, I'll take it," he said. "There's always work to do."
Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr. keeps an eye out for insurgents or threats to his operational detachment team during one of many patrols he took part in while deployed to Afghanistan.
Please note: I posted this news article due to the related A-10 combat mission. These "Hogs" belonged to the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, 355th Fighter Wing (ACC), Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, at that time deployed with 12 A-10Cs to the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.