Thursday, October 6, 2011

Air Force Cross To Be Awarded to TSgt Robert Gutierrez

[I am returned now to civilisation (defined these days as those areas with cell and internet service, though I have been trekking through areas with far less) and find that in the interim there has been much on which to comment.  I am braced with the same time constraints as before, so I will catch the topics as they present themselves, and as time and opportunity allows.] 

Several Air Force sources have announced that Technical Sergeant Robert Gutierrez Jr, USAF, will receive the second-highest award of the service, the Air Force Cross, for actions in Herat province, Afghanistan in October 2009.

Then-Staff Sergeant Gutierrez was part of a 30-man combined team of US Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos who closed on a ‘Taliban-friendly’ village that had been identified as the location of a high-placed Taliban commander.  They entered the village in the early hours over the terrain, in order to avoid likely IEDs in the roads and to maintain the element of surprise.  A quick analysis of the reports would seem to indicate that the enemy response was more severe than had been expected.  The team nevertheless achieved their main objective in killing the main target when they attacked the house where he was sleeping, but they were quickly engaged in a firefight in the village.

Gutierrez and a soldier were protected in a small structure while they were engaging the enemy at close quarters, with Gutierrez also calling in a variety of close air support.  At one point, he protected the soldier by firing at the attackers, killing at least one and hitting two more, while the soldier worked to clear his jammed weapon.  It was then that Gutierrez was hit by an armor-piercing bullet that “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”.  He later said, “I’ve seen similar injuries, guys shot in their side.  Usually, it’s very fast.  Time is not your friend in this instance. . . . At that point, I decided I’m not going to be a burden to the rest of my team.  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.”

Gutierrez was able to retain enough presence of mind to continue to call in and coordinate the air support that was vital to the security of the team, despite his massive wound.  He was quickly attended by eventually two combat medics, but he resisted treatment in order to continue his mission, as his radio was secured to his vest that would have to be removed in order for the medics to dress his wounds.  It was only after his lung collapsed to the point that he had difficulty breathing and he could no longer speak, that the medics were able to insert a needle just below his collarbone in order to relieve the pressure in his chest cavity that was filling with blood.  Once he regained his abilities, Gutierrez continued to coordinate the air support on the radio with F-16s and A-10s.

The team then had to fight their way out of the village, with Gutierrez still calling in air strikes, danger close.  The closest helo landing zone, within a few hundred meters, had to be skipped due to the intense fire, so they had to exfil to an alternate HLZ over a mile away.  Upon arrival, they had to wait for an hour before they were able to land and board the medevac.  Despite Gutierrez fading in and out of consciousness due to lack of blood, he continued to call in air support and briefed a warrant officer aboard his helo about the situation before he slipped into unconsciousness.  It is estimated that he lost about half his blood volume by the time that he was medevaced.

In all, Gutierrez suffered a gunshot wound to the upper shoulder and triceps muscle, left chest and lateral muscle, resulting in two broken ribs, 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 'danger-close' 30-mm strafing runs ruptured both of his ear drums.
A date has not yet been set for the award ceremony.  He has previously received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

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