NOTE: Air Force Special Operations Command Combat Controller, Staff
Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr., was invited to join the Secretary of Defense
during a 9/11 remembrance tour in New York. Gutierrez enlisted in 2002
following graduation from Southwestern Community College. He deployed
to Africa in support of Marine and Navy special operations elements,
and twice to Afghanistan, where he was responsible for directing
airstrikes in support of Army Special Forces. Gutierrez received the
Bronze Star Medal with Valor and was selected as one of the Air Force's
12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year in 2010. He was wounded by enemy fire
on his second deployment. He is from Chula Vista, Calif, and currently
is an instructor assigned to the Air Force Special Operations Training
told reporters the visit to ground zero "reminded me why I enlisted."
said he tried to enlist the
day after the attacks, but the recruiting stations were dosed. When
they reopened, a waiting list quickly formed because of the rush of
people wanting to sign up for the military, he said, and his own
enlistment was final about six months after the attacks.
greatest strength is
highlighted by its service members, Panetta said. And the young people
in uniform traveling with him today, he added, represent the service
they and their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast
Guardsmen have given to the nation.
we have achieved
significant success going after al-Qaida and... Bts] leadership,"
Panetta said, adding that, nevertheless, it's critical to maintain
pressure on the terrorist organization.
AIR FORCE MAGAZINE - Once More
Unto the Breach
Robert Gutierrez stuck with the mission despite taking a
bullet, his lung collapsing, busted eardrums, and losing more than
five pints of blood.
By Amy McCullough
Gutierrez, a joint terminal attack controller assigned to Hurlburt
Field, Fla., has been nominated for the Air Force Cross—the
service's second highest award for valor. As of
2011, the award was still pending the signature of Air Force Secretary
Michael Donley. Here, Gutierrez poses for a photo, less than two months
before the Afghanistan operation on Oct. 5, 2009, for which he has been
target was a “brutal” man living outside Herat city
in a “highly sympathetic village” in the western
Afghanistan, said Gutierrez. The Taliban forces were well aware they
were being hunted and were well protected. Armed insurgents manned the
rooftops inside their compound, surrounded by a 20-foot wall. The
narrow, improvised explosive device-laden roads made it almost
impossible to enter the village by vehicle, forcing the US team and
about a dozen Afghan soldiers to finish the last two-and-a-half miles
team moved fast,
“because speed in the night is what favors you
Gutierrez, the lone joint terminal attack controller on the ground that
day. At the time, he was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron
at Pope AFB, N.C. Two F-16s and an MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted
aircraft orbited the area high above, giving those on the ground a
heads up on the insurgents’ locations.
teams started taking
fire almost immediately after the initial breach of the wall
surrounding the target compound. The first team pushed through.
Gutierrez, who was in the second stack, paused to take out a group of
insurgents who were laying down heavy fire from behind an adjacent
alley before he took cover inside the targeted building. Once inside,
he radioed the aircraft to let them know they were in contact with the
enemy. The team leader already had been shot in the calf and was having
trouble walking, and the medics were busy tending to other members of
the team struck by fragmentation.
As the battle raged inside the
compound, an additional support team was moving in from the west, but
insurgents unleashed more heavy fire on them before they could breach
the wall, rendering their own firepower useless. The additional support
team was forced to break contact, leaving those inside to rely on
airpower to keep them from being overrun—a real possibility
considering they were outnumbered and some of the Afghan national
forces had already fled.
hovered in a doorway
dodging bullets and returning fire when the soldier next to him had his
gun jam, then was struck by fragmentation. Gutierrez called a medic and
took over his buddy’s position, where he had a better line of
sight on two insurgents shooting at them from the rooftop next door.
one of the insurgents fell, Gutierrez was hit.
knew something was
wrong, but you don’t really have time to sit there and think
about things,” Gutierrez told Air Force Magazine during a
interview from Hurlburt Field, Fla., where he is stationed now.
“You just do what you need to do. You return fire and
return fire until the
pain in his side and arms overwhelmed him. Gutierrez fell to the ground
gasping for air, realizing for the first time that he had been shot.
“I know I’m wounded [and] I’m trying to
think of how
severe it is,” he said.
stopped. ... I’m on my hands and knees ... trying to talk,
every time I tried to talk, I had blood coming out of my mouth and out
of my nose, so I knew that I had been wounded pretty bad.”
Gutierrez was an experienced air commando and he had seen similar
wounds before. He knew he was probably going to die, but he was
determined not to let his guys down.
needed to get back on the radio, so he called for the medic. Gutierrez
had no idea where the bullet entered his body.
he was suffering from a
sucking chest wound, he tried to shout commands to his comrades to
cover the door and attempted to connect with the aircraft overhead to
tell them he had been shot. But as the medic stripped off his gear,
Gutierrez was quickly losing his breath, making that impossible. The
round had entered through his upper shoulder, traveled down his
scapula, pierced his lung, and then exited out his back. “The
whole trajectory of it and the way it came through just ripped apart
everything all the way down,” he said. Gutierrez would later
acknowledge just how lucky he was, because the bullet took a
“weird” turn and narrowly missed his heart.
No Time For
High above, the pilots assumed
Gutierrez had been injured when they couldn’t get him on the
radio. They weren’t sure how bad it was so they continued to
relay insurgent locations and requested permission to strike.
couldn’t talk. I could hear it, but it was so unfortunate
[because] I couldn’t talk,” he said. The enemy was
than 50 feet away, and air support was debating whether the aircraft
should fire a Hellfire missile.
had to get back on the
net, call it off, abort the pass,” recalled Gutierrez. The
power of the Hellfire would probably have killed them all, he said.
breathe. The medic held up a needle—“a good seven
long,” Gutierrez recalled—and told him his lung had
collapsed. He needed to jam the needle into Gutierrez’s chest
relieve the pressure in his chest cavity so his lungs could inflate. It
was going to hurt, but “GZ” just nodded. He wanted
it over with so he could get back to his job. He didn’t have
to focus on pain.
said he was “in
the middle of the fight and we are starting to take heavy grenades.
… An RPG has gone off on the side of the wall, and he gives
the needle decompression.”
later, he was back on the radio. He called off the Hellfire strike and
requested that the F-16s conduct a show of force.
The deafening roar of the jet
fighters as they passed by partially caused the buildings to crumble,
yet the insurgents kept firing. Gutierrez requested another flyby, this
time with flares. The insurgents didn’t back down, and now
F-16s were running low on fuel.
time Capt. Ethan Sabin,
an A-10 pilot based at Kandahar Airfield, arrived the situation was
grim. Gutierrez was wounded and Sabin said he “could hear the
severity of the situation in his voice.” However, Sabin said
Gutierrez’ words remained crystal clear.
“He saved the lives of
of his men,” Sabin said. “As dire as the situation
he not been there to talk me on to the target and provide controls for
strikes, the team would have likely suffered more casualties.”
Col. Parks Hughes, at the
time Gutierrez’s commander, called his performance on the
battlefield that day “extraordinary,” but said
actions were completely consistent with his character as warrior and an
Sabin arrived, only the
Predator and one F-16 remained on the scene; the other fighter had run
out of fuel and had flown back. Sabin sent his wingman to fetch the
tanker, which was roughly 170 miles away. He didn’t want to
the guys stranded and no one knew how long the battle would last. It
was critical for aircraft to get back into the fight as quickly as
descended below the
Predator’s altitude and asked the F-16 pilot to mark the
with the laser on his targeting pod. This enabled him to
“instantly get eyes and sensors on the target,”
who now serves as the chief of weapons and tactics with the 354th
Fighter Squadron from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.
below, Gutierrez and his
team leader, both suffering from gunshot wounds, discussed their
options. The shows of force had not worked, and the insurgents had them
covered on three sides. They needed a gun run, even if it was
requested the first
strafing shortly after the Hogs arrived, while the medics were still
packing his side with combat gauze and trying to stitch up his wounds.
Sabin said he had some reservations about strafing less than 65 feet
from friendly forces, but his attack proved to be “spot
on.” The attack was so close, Gutierrez’s right
burst and his left eardrum was severely damaged from the noise.
[what is] most
impressive was the exceptionally high degree of technical proficiency
with which he directed the air strikes, despite such dire circumstances
and great physical pain,” said Hughes, the former commander
the 21st STS. “Ultimately, his actions helped to suppress the
enemy force and enabled his team to escape the kill zone with no
additional casualties.” In fact, despite the intensity of the
close-quarters battle, there were no US fatalities in the engagement.
shooting halted for a short time, then picked back up again. Gutierrez
called in another strafing run.
came through, was on
target, also danger close,” he said. Time was running out.
Buildings were catching fire and the soldiers were standing inside a
ticking time bomb. The target building was filled with a
amount of ammonium nitrate,” a highly flammable fertilizer
to make improvised explosive devices, he said.
the next day-and-a-half he
would be treated at Herat Airfield, at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital
at Bagram Airfield—both in Afghanistan—then
Regional Medical Center in Germany, before finally arriving at Walter
Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“We decided that we were
combat air effective,” and the high-value target was dead, so
“we were going to use one more pass as a cover for us to
exit,” Gutierrez said. “I put my kit back on, put
back on, ... [and] gave instructions to the A-10 pilot. He fully
obliged [and] came back through. As [he] struck, we pushed out and left
not to be a burden on
his team, Gutierrez got to his feet, with the medic holding his bag and
supporting his shoulder.
my ears were out,
my balance was completely off. I couldn’t really stand up
straight,” he said. “I kind of would veer off
everywhere.” Gutierrez called in a medical evacuation for
himself, the captain, and two other wounded troops, but he was
initially denied. It was too dangerous; they had to leave the area, he
gunfire followed them
as they stumbled away from the village. After struggling for about two
miles, Gutierrez’s lung collapsed for a second time. The
did another needle decompression by the side of a four-way intersection
as the A-10s continued to provide close air support and ISR assets fed
them vital information from above. When he got his breath back,
Gutierrez requested an immediate medevac.
troops found a muddy, square
vegetation field, roughly 300 feet by 300 feet, which had just enough
room for one helicopter to land. They secured the site and waited for
the medevac, a joint Spanish and Italian team from Herat Airfield, to
weak from the loss of
blood, Gutierrez waited for an hour-and-a-half. His uniform became
soaked and stuck to his arm. At first he thought it was sweat from the
difficult trek to the landing zone, or maybe muddy water from the canal
he stumbled in as they pushed out.
no idea he had lost five-and-a-half pints of blood.
just go. I
don’t have time to be a hindrance,” he said.
I’m dead, I’m just dead weight. Everybody has their
push, their own internal fortitude, and I don’t have time to
anyone down.” When the medevac bird finally arrived,
asked the pilot to follow the rest of the team as they hiked back to
their vehicles, where an International Security Assistance Force convoy
was waiting to escort them back. Then he passed out.
the next day-and-a-half he
would be treated at Herat Airfield, at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital
at Bagram Airfield—both in Afghanistan—then
Regional Medical Center in Germany, before finally arriving at Walter
Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
him about 19 months to
recover. Today Gutierrez is back on duty and now serves as an
instructor at the Air Force Special Operations Training Center at
Hurlburt. He is about 98 percent recovered, although he still has
limited movement in his arm. That’s “just the
nature of the
beast,” said Gutierrez. “I probably won’t
back, but it’s fine. I’m full up. I’m
deployable. I’m good to go.”
a bullet wound, a
collapsed lung, and busted eardrums didn’t make him quit, a
loss of mobility won’t keep him from deploying again.
I assure you I
will,” said Gutierrez with the same dogged determination that
helped save his life and the lives of his team members two years ago.
AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, (8/3/10) -- Air Force officials selected the 12
Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2010.
An Air Force
selection board at the
Air Force Personnel Center here considered 36 nominees who represented
major commands, direct reporting units, field operating agencies and
the Air Staff. The board selected the 12 Airmen based on superior
leadership, job performance and personal achievements.
are authorized to wear
the Outstanding Airman of the Year ribbon, while the 12 winners will
wear the bronze service star device on the ribbon. The winners will
also wear the Outstanding Airman of the Year Badge for one year from
the date of formal presentation.
Gutierrez selected as Outstanding Airman
of the Year, 2010
Combat Controller's actions epitomize the ethos
of Special Tactics
12/2/2008 - RAF
MILDENHALL, England -- Staff Sergeant Robert
Gutierrez, Jr., an Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller assigned
to the 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall, deployed to
Afghanistan in early January 2008.
During one of many missions, Sergeant Gutierrez was on patrol searching
for a high-value target when his Special Forces Operational Detachment
Alpha team was ambushed.
Traveling along a mountain road, his team's convoy took insurgent fire
from the right of their position as they neared a bridge -- across from
the compound they were to search.
Countering the small arms and machine-gun fire with the organic weapons
in their convoy, Sergeant Gutierrez added lethal gun and bomb passes
from F-15E and A-10 aircraft overhead. Once the initial contact seemed
finished, all became quiet according to the Sergeant. "We then
dismounted the convoy to conduct an assessment of the situation after
the air strike," he said.
ODA team crossed the bridge by foot to check houses in the compound,
and once again came under intense enemy fire - this time from three
sides of their position. Cut off from the heavy weapons in
their convoy and pinned down by
insurgent fire, the situation grew worse with each passing moment. The
team leader was incapacitated within minutes and another team member
was wounded and stranded in the enemy "kill zone." With the enemy
pressing for advantage, Sergeant Gutierrez went to work. He directly engaged and killed four
insurgents with his M-4 Carbine and
orchestrated eight strafing runs from A-10 aircraft onto multiple
targets threatening to overrun their location. The A-10 passes gave him and a team
member the opportunity to run in
and out of the "kill box" to retrieve their critically wounded
teammate. Consolidating the team's position,
Sergeant Gutierrez then directed
more than 70 close air support strikes over the next five plus hours
while repelling numerous attempts by insurgents to overrun their
position. His focus and technical battlefield expertise were deciding
factors to the team's survival - a fact born out by the operation's
final numbers. "I determined the enemy's positions
as fast as I could," he said. As he
continuously directed A-10 Thunderbolts, F-15 Strike Eagles and AH-64
Apache helicopters onto multiple targets surrounding their position,
often with the enemy just meters away. Afterward, he used both A-10s and
UAVs, to keep the enemy at bay and
gain information on enemy positions, maintaining a protective fire
suppression blanket for his team from the air.
the battle subsided and the
area was secure, he called in two
medical evacuation flights for his wounded and fallen teammates.
During the engagement, Sergeant Gutierrez synchronized airstrikes,
utilized UAVs, and his team's organic firepower to effectively
incapacitate more than 240 insurgent enemy fighters, including the
"high-value target," the objective of the entire mission.
A senior leader from his unit said, "Sergeant Gutierrez's actions that
day epitomized the ethos of special tactics. He willingly risked his
life to save a teammate. He maintained his composure in the darkest of
circumstances and aggressively pursued the enemy using every asset at
his disposal. Sergeant Gutierrez is a warrior in every sense of the
Incidentally, Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez Jr. reenlisted in the
United States Air Force during his deployment to Operation Enduring
Freedom; pictured right
SSgt Robert Gutierrez Jr. reenlisting
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, a Purple Heart, and an Air Force
Combat Action Medal.
To Accompany the Award of the Bronze Star Medal (With Valor) to Robert
Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez,
Jr., distinguished himself by heroism as a Special Tactics Combat
Controller, 21st Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, Combined Joint
Special Operations Air Component while engaged in ground combat against
an enemy of the United States in Afghanistan on 6 April 2008. On that
day, Sergeant Gutierrez was attached to Army Special Forces Operational
Detachment-Alpha 3312 as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, in support
of Operation COMMANDO WRATH. He provided critical Airmanship skills
during a violent 6 and a half hour battle against heavily armed and
entrenched enemy fighters. While approaching the objective, while
climbing near-vertical terrain, the assault force was ambushed by
anti-Coalition forces which pinned down the lead team on a 60-foot high
rock cliff and produced several friendly casualties. Sergeant Gutierrez
coordinated with the engaged element and directed lethal gun, missile,
and bomb attacks from AH-64s and F-15Es. Despite these strikes, the
attack intensified onto his team's position. Despite being struck twice
by 7.62 millimeter bullets in the helmet, Sergeant Gutierrez maintained
his calm demeanor and continued to prosecute targets. As the fight
continued, the insurgents shifted their efforts toward arriving
helicopters and engaged them with heavy fire. Sergeant Gutierrez
coordinated with the ground force commander to delay friendly force
extraction until the enemy positions could be suppressed. Enabled his
systematic control of air power during the fight, all 17 friendly
casualties were safely evacuated and 40 enemy fighters were killed. By
his heroic actions and unselfish dedication to duty, Sergeant Gutierrez
has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air
Gutierrez earned the medals for two separate deployments to
Afghanistan. His Bronze Star Medal was awarded for his actions under
intense enemy fire in Afghanistan winter 2008. His Purple Heart was
awarded for injuries sustained in late 2009.
Green Berets To
Receive Silver Star for Afghan Battle
jumping out of helicopters at daybreak onto jagged, ice-covered rocks
and into water at an altitude of 10,000 feet, the 12-man Special Forces
team scrambled up the steep mountainside toward its target--an
insurgent stronghold in northeast Afghanistan.
plan,'' Capt. Kyle M. Walton recalled in an interview, ``was to fight
as the soldiers maneuvered toward a cluster of thick-walled mud
buildings constructed layer upon layer about 1,000 feet farther up the
mountain, insurgents quickly manned fighting positions, readying a
barrage of fire for the exposed Green Berets.
harrowing, nearly seven-hour battle unfolded on that mountainside in
Afghanistan's Nuristan province on April 6, as Walton, his 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--four critically--and managed to subdue an estimated
150 to 200 insurgents, according to interviews with several team
members and official citations.
Walton and nine of his teammates from Operational Detachment Alpha 3336
of the 3rd Special Forces Group will receive the Silver Star for their
heroism in that battle--the highest number of such awards given to the
elite troops for a single engagement since the Vietnam War.
chilly morning, Walton's mind was on his team's mission: to capture or
kill several members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) militant
group in their stronghold, a village perched in Nuristan's Shok Valley
that was accessible only by pack mule and so remote that Walton said he
believed that no U.S. troops, or Soviet ones before them, had ever been
as the soldiers, each carrying 60 to 80 pounds of gear, scaled the
mountain, they could already spot insurgents running to and fro, they
said. As the soldiers drew closer, they saw that many of the mud
buildings had holes in the foot-thick walls for snipers. The U.S.
troops had maintained an element of surprise until their helicopters
turned into the valley, but by now the insurgent leaders entrenched
above knew they were the targets, and had alerted their fighters to
Sgt. Luis Morales of Fredericksburg was the first to see an armed
insurgent and opened fire, killing him. But at that moment, the
insurgents began blasting away at the American and Afghan troops with
machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades--shooting
down on each of the U.S. positions from virtually all sides.
elements were pinned down from extremely heavy fire from the get-go,''
Walton said. ``It was a coordinated attack.'' The insurgent Afghan
fighters knew there was only one route up the valley and ``were able to
wait until we were in the most vulnerable position to initiate the
ambush,'' said Staff Sgt. Seth E. Howard, the team weapons sergeant.
immediately, exposed U.S. and Afghan troops were hit. An Afghan
interpreter was killed, and Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr was shot in the hip.
were pretty much in the open, there were no trees to hide behind,''
said Morales, who with Walton pulled Behr back to their position.
Morales cut open Behr's fatigues and applied pressure to his bleeding
hip, even though Morales himself had been shot in the right thigh. A
minute later, Morales was hit again, in the ankle, leaving him
struggling to treat himself and his comrade, he said. Absent any cover,
Walton moved the body of the dead Afghan interpreter to shield the
down the hill in the streambed, Master Sgt. Scott Ford, the team
sergeant, was firing an M203 grenade launcher at the fighting
positions, he recalled. An Afghan commando fired rocket-propelled
grenades at the windows from which they were taking fire, while Howard
shot rounds from a rocket launcher and recoilless rifle.
of Athens, Ohio, then moved up the mountain amid withering fire to aid
Walton at his command position. The ferocity of the attack surprised
him, as rounds ricocheted nearby every time he stuck his head out from
behind a rock. ``Typically they run out of ammo or start to manage
their ammo, but ..... they held a sustained rate of fire for about six
hours,'' he said.
Ford and Staff Sgt. John Wayne Walding returned fire, Walding was hit
below his right knee. Ford turned and saw that the bullet ``basically
amputated his right leg right there on the battlefield.''
of Groesbeck, Tex., recalled: ``I literally grabbed my boot and put it
in my crotch, then got the boot laces and tied it to my thigh, so it
would not flop around. There was about two inches of meat holding my
leg on.'' He put on a tourniquet, watching the blood flow out the stump
to see when it was tight enough.
Walding tried to inject himself with morphine but accidentally used the
wrong tip of the syringe and put the needle in his thumb, he later
recalled. ``My thumb felt great,'' he said wryly, noting that
throughout the incident he never lost consciousness. ``My name is John
Wayne,'' he said.
afterward, a round hit Ford in the chest, knocking him back but not
penetrating his body armor. A minute later, another bullet went through
his left arm and shoulder, hitting the helmet of the medic, Staff Sgt.
Ronald J. Shurer, who was behind him treating Behr. An insurgent sniper
was zeroing in on them.
heavily from the arm, Ford put together a plan to begin removing the
wounded, knowing they could hold out only for so long without being
overrun. By this time, Air Force jets had begun dropping dozens of
munitions on enemy positions precariously close to the Green Berets,
including 2,000-pound bombs that fell within 350 yards.
was completely covered in a cloud of black smoke from the explosion,''
said Howard, and Behr was wounded in the intestine by a piece of
evacuation plan, Ford said, was that ``every time they dropped another
bomb, we would move down another terrace until we basically leapfrogged
down the mountain.'' Ford was able to move to lower ground after one
bomb hit, but insurgent fire rained down again, pinning the soldiers
we went that way, we would have all died,'' said Howard, who was hiding
behind 12-inch-high rocks with bullets bouncing off about every 10
seconds. Insurgents again nearly overran the U.S. position, firing down
from 25 yards away--so near that the Americans said they could hear
their voices. Another 2,000-pound bomb dropped
``danger close,'' Howard said, allowing the soldiers to get
after hours of fighting, the troops made their way down to the
streambed, with those who could still walk carrying the wounded. A
medical evacuation helicopter flew in, but the rotors were immediately
hit by bullets, so the pilot hovered just long enough to allow the
in-flight medic to jump off, then flew away.
second helicopter came in but had to land in the middle of the icy,
fast-moving stream. ``It took two to three guys to carry each casualty
through the river,'' Ford said. ``It was a mad dash to the medevac.''
As they sat on the helicopter, it sustained several rounds of fire, and
the pilot was grazed by a bullet.
the time the battle ended, the Green Berets and the commandos had
suffered 15 wounded and two killed, both Afghans, while an estimated
150 to 200 insurgents were dead, according to an official Army account
of the battle. The Special Forces soldiers had nearly run out of
ammunition, with each having one to two magazines left, Ford said.
should not have lived,'' said Walding, reflecting on the battle in a
phone interview from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he and the nine others are
to receive the Silver Stars today. Nine more Green Berets from the 3rd
Special Forces Group will also receive Silver Stars for other battles.
About 200 U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have received the
Silver Star, the U.S. military's third-highest combat award.
Story: Combat Controller's actions epitomize the ethos
of Special Tactics
- HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- An Air Force Special
Command Airman saved lives in Afghanistan April 6 during a lengthy
battle by calling in airstrikes to protect his team.
Zachary Rhyner, a special tactics Combat Controller assigned
to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was
deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom as the primary joint terminal
attack controller while attached to special forces team Operational
Detachment Alpha 3336, 3rd Special Forces Group.
Then a senior
airman, Sergeant Rhyner was part of a 130-man combined
assault force whose mission was to enter Shok Valley and capture a
high-value target who was funding the insurgency. Sergeant Rhyner is
credited with saving his10-man team from being overrun twice in a
Parker, the detachment commander at Bagram Airfield,
Afghanistan, was the command and control link to the JTACs on the
ground as they went into Shok Valley.
"This was the
first time U.S. special operations forces entered the
territory," Captain Parker said. "These were extraordinary conditions
and the situation was dynamic."
is located below 60-foot cliffs. The mission objective was at the top
of the mountains surrounding the valley.
infiltration began that day with snow on the ground, jagged
rocks, a fast-moving river and a cliff," Sergeant Rhyner said. "There
was a 5-foot wall you had to pull yourself up. The ridgeline trail was
out of control."
expectation was to encounter fire from about 70 insurgents. One Air
Force JTAC-qualified Combat Controller was attached to each team to
call in airstrikes, if needed.
caught off guard as 200 enemy fighters approached," said Staff
Sgt. Rob Gutierrez, a Combat Controller with the second team in the
fight. "Within 10 minutes, we were ambushed with heavy fire from 50
meters. The teams were split by a river 100 to 200 meters apart, north
Rhyner was in charge of coordinating the air assets.
"I have never
seen a situation this bad," said Captain Parker, who was
monitoring the situation back at the base. "The intel said the enemy
was 40 feet away from Zach and his team at one point. It was
first 15 minutes of fire, Sergeant Rhyner was wounded along with three
pulling security when I got shot in the leg," he said. "The
rounds hit my left thigh and went through my leg and hit another guy in
Rhyner said he immediately felt pain and adrenalin.
nowhere to go. I grabbed the wounded guys, but we were
trapped by the enemy," he said. "I was calling in airstrikes and
firing, while moving the wounded down (the cliff)."
Gutierrez said he could see insurgent fire coming from the
buildings on the hilltops above them and was trying to get across the
river to meet up with Sergeant Rhyner.
"Zach and I
were in constant radio contact," he said. "I could hear the
ammunition, sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades with multiple
blasts. We tried to push to the north to collocate with Zach's team,
but every time we pushed up river, it put us in an open line of fire."
"My team ran
across the freezing river. The water came off the
mountains, and we were 100 to 200 feet beneath the enemy, like fish in
a barrel," Sergeant Gutierrez said.
As the enemy
surrounded them, Sergeant Rhyner, who was being treated
for his injuries by Capt. Kyle Walton, the special forces team leader,
directed multiple rockets and gun runs from AH-64 Apache helicopters
against enemy positions.
coordinating tremendous amounts of fire on both villages
simultaneously," Sergeant Gutierrez said. "Zach was in charge of the
airstrikes, since he was closest to the fight and could see even what
the F-15 (Eagle) pilots could not."
minutes to an hour had gone by since the fight began.
pinned down and I could see the enemy all over the hills
running around," Sergeant Gutierrez said. There were no stable targets.
I kept the Apaches and the Hellfire missiles pressed to the north."
Accurate sniper, machine gun and
RPG fire poured down on the assault
force in a complex ambush initiated simultaneously from all directions
as Alpha Team 3336 ascended the near-vertical terrain. He called in
more than 50 close airstrikes and strafing runs.
into the fight, Sergeant Gutierrez reached Sergeant Rhyner's position.
Gutierrez and I met on the cliff during the battle briefly.
We shared a laugh, but it was a busy, bleak situation," Sergeant Rhyner
Rhyner had been calling in airstrikes for three hours while he
was injured; however, he still felt responsible for the others who had
been hurt. With disregard for his own life, he tried to get the injured
to safety, still in the open line of fire.
injured personnel in a house and I had to get over there," he
said. "I was frustrated being wounded. I tried to get the bombs there
fast and talk to the pilots who didn't see what I saw on the ground."
Five or six
hours into the fight, as it was getting dark, intelligence
informed the JTACs that enemy reinforcements were 10 kilometers away
carrying enemy rockets and missiles.
to fight our way up the hill and the (helicopters) came,"
Sergeant Gutierrez said. "Zach was talking to the helos and gave the
coordinates to lay the bombs on the village, while I kept the A-10
(Thunderbolt IIs) and the Apaches out of the way."
Rhyner called in a total of 4,570 rounds of cannon fire, nine
Hellfire missiles, 162 rockets, 12 500-pound bombs and one 2,000-pound
bomb, constantly engaging the enemy with his M-4 rifle to deter their
fast and shut down the fighting," Sergeant Gutierrez said. "The wounded
were taken out on medevac."
command and control, Captain Parker heard that the helicopters
were on the ground with the wounded but he could not move the
helicopters due to the terrain and weather conditions.
transmissions would block the signal due to terrain and vertical
cliffs," he said. "Helicopters were vulnerable and there was pressure
to do everything we could to get the teams out quickly."
started rolling into the valley.
feet, the helicopter couldn't fly (due to altitude) and the
situation called for 'aggressive patience,'" Captain Parker said. "More
than 50 percent of the U.S. forces were wounded, and it was pretty
end of the fighting, 40 insurgents were killed and 100 wounded
Rhyner was directly credited with the entire team's survival due to his
skill and poise under intense fire.
Rhyner is out of training less than a year and is in one of
the most difficult situations," Captain Parker said. "It is an absolute
testament to his character and the training these guys take. It tells
me we are doing something right."
"If it wasn't
for Zach, I wouldn't be here," Sergeant Gutierrez said.
He was shorter than I expected. Rounder, too. In most of the photos
I’d seen he’d worn the downrange beard, thick as
otter fur, that marks a Special Operator. It lent him a kind of Santa
Claus’s badass nephew mien. But when I met him last week at
Hurlburt Field, home to the USAF’s Special Operations
Command, he was clean-shaven, with a ready smile and a jaunt to his
gait that belied the wounds he bore.
your consideration: the tale of Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez Jr.,
Forward Combat Controller extraordinaire.
was October, 2009. Early October. Herat Province, Afghanistan.
Gutierrez was attached to a team of 30 Army Special Forces and Afghan
National Army commandos tracking what the Pentagon refers to as
“high-priority targets.” (Most warfighters in the
field just go with “bad mofos.”) The combined team
had entered a nondescript village where the target was said to be
hiding. All hell broke loose. Ambush. They were waiting for them.
over four hours rifle and RPG fire from the adjacent rooftops ripped
into the American position. Surrounded, outgunned, and outmanned,
Guterrez emptied clip after clip of his M4 carbine. Then he felt the
sting. Armor piercing round. It entered through his left shoulder and
corkscrewed into his torso, lodging finally in his chest after breaking
two ribs and his scapula. His lungs collapsed, and he was bleeding out
from a softball-sized hole in his back.
seen those types of injuries,” he said. “Time
isn’t your friend. I thought, ‘I have three minutes
before I’m going to die.’”
posed a problem not only for Gutierrez, but for the entire SF Team. For
“The Goot” was the only radio operator in
communication with the F-16s and A-10s vectoring overhead on strafing
and bombing runs. Yet despite believing he was about to die, Gutierrez
refused to allow the two Army medics to remove his kit and armor in
order to treat him. His radio, you see, was attached to his kit. And
without Gutierrez on the hand-held, the gunships providing close air
support would have no “eyes on the ground.”
of the A-10 pilots remembers Gutierrez’s voice throughout the
ordeal, calm and cool as an FM deejay’s. It was only after
returning to base that the pilot learned that the Combat Controller had
been delivering coordinates and instructions as the life oozed out of
the third strafing run, after the air power had decimated the
insurgents to the point where the Army SF Team could make a run for it,
Gutierrez finally allowed the medics to remove his battle rattle and
insert a needle-nosed decompression tube into his lungs. Then he put
the armor back on and continued calling in fire. When it came time to
Di Di Mau (showing my age), Gutierrez, the tube still planted in his
chest, ran about a mile with the rest of the team to the exfil LZ.
Along the way he continued to guide the gunships as well as call in his
obviously lived. From Walter Reed Hospital he transferred to Hurlburt,
where he is still recuperating. Which is where I found him last week,
attending a small graduation ceremony for another generation of Combat
Controllers. He doesn’t like to talk much about the
firefight. “Tell you the truth, I really don’t
remember all that much about it,” he said. “Except
for, at one point, thinking. ‘Okay, I’m gonna die.
But unless I stay on this radio we’re all gonna die, not just
me. And I’m not gonna let that happen.’ Plus, my
wife was pregnant with our first at the time, and I was sad that
I’d never get to see my baby.”
was there when his wife gave birth to a girl that December. The couple
has since added a baby brother to the brood. And as we compared notes
on our kids I thought once again of the wonder of ordinary men thrust
into extraordinary circumstances. For his valor and courage Gutierrez
was awarded the Air Force Cross, the service’s highest honor
and the country second-highest military award, second only to the
Congressional Medal of Honor.
and I made more small talk for while before shaking hands goodbye. I
lingered to watch him walk out the door into the bright Florida
sunlight, don his Combat Controller’s scarlet beret, and head
for another round of physical therapy. He was still shorter than I
expected. Rounder, too.
14-year-old was in Stateside from Europe for the Holidays. Tells me
when he grows up he wants to be a diplomat. (Of all things! What ever
happened to a fireman or a cowboy?) Yet on one of our long,
see-the-Mercun-cousins road trips my son and I got to talking about
military service. He asked me if, should he go in that direction, which
Special Forces would I recommend. Air Force, I answered without
hesitation. They’ve got the coolest berets.