On October 5, 2009, Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Gutierrez was shot through the chest during a fierce firefight in a muddy village in western Afghanistan. Gutierrez, a 29-year old Special Forces Combat Controller, was coordinating air support for an Army Special Forces team sent after a high value Taliban target. Ignoring a sucking chest wound and collapsed lung, Gutierrez continued directing aerial attacks, almost certainly saving the lives of nearly 30 outnumbered American and Afghan forces. Now fully recovered, Gutierrez has been nominated to receive soon the country’s second-highest military honor, the Air Force Cross.
SSgt Gutierrez’s story, like that of other winners of the Medal of Honor and service Crosses, reveals unimaginable gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life. It also gives a peek at the American way of fighting that integrates all elements of military power into a force that can defeat any battlefield challengers. However, it also is a system that may no longer operate as effectively after hundreds of billions of dollars are stripped from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Losing such airpower support for America’s fighting men and women should worry the politicians who send those forces into harm’s way. In the case of Gutierrez and his comrades, fire from the sky quite literally saved their lives.
Robert Gutierrez was born in San Diego and grew up in Chula Vista, California. A brawny youngster, he tried to enlist in the Armed Forces right after 9/11, “not because I wanted to pay for school or anything,” he tells me during a phone conversation, “but because I wanted to fight.” His voice lacks any hint of bravado or boastfulness; rather, it is marked by a lighthearted, infectious optimism.
Winding up at an Air Force recruiting booth, he told the recruiter that he wanted to be on the ground, in the thick of the fight. The Air Force steered him towards the elite air commando special tactics squadrons, ensuring that Gutierrez would serve as a critical link between the ground and the air, and that he would find himself in the middle of intense battles on a regular basis.
The U.S. Air Force Special Forces commandos are the most unsung of America’s elite fighting forces. Less well known than their SEAL or Delta Force brethren, they nonetheless play a role almost unique among all Special Forces. While most Americans assume that the SEALS or Green Berets charge in alone and unprotected, the truth is that nearly every Special Forces operation has a U.S. Air Force Combat Controller, Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or Pararescueman assigned to it. Two pararescuemen and one combat controller were among those lost when an Army Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in August, in which 25 Special Operations Command warriors died.
Combat controllers coordinate all aspects of vital air support during operations like the one in which SSgt Gutierrez nearly died. They seize or establish airfields for follow on forces, link to warplanes in the sky, direct them to targets, receive battlefield intelligence from manned or remotely-piloted aircraft, decide which munitions should be fired, and fight side-by-side with their Army or Navy fellows.
It is a real-life game of three-dimensional chess that only the most intellectually and physically gifted can play, who must train nearly two years for the job. Gutierrez is not only a certified air traffic controller, for example, he also is a crack shot who killed at least two Taliban insurgents during his firefight. As he says, combat controllers are a “total SOF [Special Operations Forces] package, we shoot, move, and communicate at the same time.”
That firefight near Herat city that October night initially was no different from any of the other hazardous operations Gutierrez conducted. That week alone, the father of a newborn and the Army team he was a part of had conducted three raids before setting out to the village. After walking over a mile from their vehicles, they reached the compound and immediately began taking sustained heavy fire, including rocket-propelled grenades. While talking with two F-16s overhead, getting information on the location of insurgents, Gutierrez had to fight at close range with shooters surrounding him and his team. The firefight raged for three and a half hours, Gutierrez told me, but the entire mission, from beginning to his medical evacuation at the end, took nearly seven exhausting hours.
Pinned down by enemy fire, SSgt Gutierrez took over from a soldier whose weapon had jammed. As he took out an insurgent firing at them from a rooftop, Gutierrez was struck. The bullet plowed through his upper chest, just missing his heart, and collapsing his lung. Gutierrez was coughing up blood and couldn’t breathe. He had seen men die of wounds like this before, he relates, and thought that he would bleed out within three minutes.
What did you think about when you realized you would probably die, I asked? “I thought about [my job], what I would do before I bled out. That I would change the world in those three minutes, I’d do everything I could to get my guys out safely before I died,” he replies.
Gutierrez refused to leave the fight because only he could talk with and direct the airplanes that were quickly becoming their salvation. An Army medic inserted a seven-inch needle, without anesthetic, into Gutierrez’s chest in order to inflate his lung. That allowed him to get back on the radio calling for help from above even while bleeding profusely and in extreme pain.
The Americans were being fired upon by Taliban standing on top of a 20-foot wall just ten feet from Gutierrez. After fly-bys from F-16s failed to dislodge them, Gutierrez directed a strafing run by an A-10 gunship. The A-10’s bullets were fired so close to the Americans that Gutierrez’s eardrum burst. After another pass, Gutierrez and the team leader, who also was wounded, decided their target was incapacitated and that it was time to withdraw.
Directing a final strafing run, Gutierrez picked up his blood-soaked equipment and began trudging over a mile back to the team’s vehicles. He radioed for emergency evacuation, suffered another collapsed lung, waited for the helicopter to arrive, and then finally passed out. He did all this while losing half of his blood—over five pints. Remarkably, and due largely to his directing air support, no American forces were killed on the mission. In fact, Gutierrez was the worst wounded of all.
His recovery took 19 months, part of it spent at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Today, he is an instructor at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School in Hurlburt Field, Florida. I asked him what he wanted to do next. “Get back to Afghanistan,” he replied, “and do the same thing all day, every day.”
The work of the Air Force combat controllers is a central part of why America’s fighting forces are so lethal. It is a unique combination of advanced communication, precise airpower coordination, synthesizing of intelligence, and instantaneous battlefield judgments that project an umbrella over exposed and often outnumbered U.S. forces.
It also is noticed at the highest levels. “I can't say enough about our Airmen, who proudly help protect our nation and the freedoms we all enjoy,” writes Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Philip Breedlove in an e-mail to me. “Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr.'s exceptional bravery while serving in Afghanistan is an extraordinary example of this honorable service. It is stories like his that make me proud to wear the Air Force uniform, and humbled to serve with such amazing men and women.”
The motto of the combat controllers is “First There,” carving out an environment in which special operations forces can eliminate the most dangerous threats to America. One can only hope that this precisely balanced and lethal mechanism of air and ground troops continues to function in tomorrow’s smaller and budget-constrained armed forces.
The politics of Washington, D.C., however, are the last thing on Gutierrez’s mind. He represents the very pinnacle of America’s warriors, and is eager to go back out into brutal combat time and again. His focus, like that of his Special Forces comrades, remains simply on making every mission the very best they have ever done.
Some might wonder if any medal, even an Air Force Cross, is recognition enough for that kind of commitment and for what Robert Gutierrez did on that October night in Afghanistan.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.