Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez Jr. was presented the Air
Force Cross and Tech. Sgt. Ismael Villegas was presented the Silver
Star by Gen. Norton Schwartz in a joint ceremony. The Air Force Cross
is the service's highest award and is second only to the Medal of
Honor. The Silver Star is awarded for valor, to include risk of life
during engagement with the enemy.
Both Airmen received their awards for gallant actions
during combat operations in 2009 that directly contributed to saving
the lives of their teammates and decimating enemy forces. Gutierrez and
Villegas were both assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, Pope
Field, N.C., when they deployed in support of Operation Enduring
Freedom in 2009, although the two medals are not related to the same
operation. Freedom Hangar was a sea of berets as more than 1,000
gathered to watch Schwartz present the Airmen their awards.
credited the two Combat Controllers for not only being courageous, but
for also being humble in recognition.
"With the modesty that is characteristic of the quiet
professional, these two joint terminal attack controllers would hardly
hesitate to claim that, during the incidents for which they are being
decorated today, they were merely performing as they were trained,"
Schwartz said. "And they are accepting the honors on behalf of the
entire team that worked with them."
Gutierrez and Villegas attribute their exceptional
performance on the battlefield to training they received at AFSOC.
"You don't have a lot of time to think about yourself,"
Villegas said. "Your training allows you to do your job so you can
overcome any obstacle and ultimately bring brothers on the battlefield
Gutierrez, now an instructor at the Special Tactics
Training Squadron located here, is the second living recipient of the
Air Force Cross. Like Gutierrez, the last five recipients of the medal
have all been AFSOC Airmen. Gutierrez accepted the Air Force Cross on
behalf of all of his fellow Airmen in combat.
"It is for every Airman who is fighting," he said. "This
is a representation of them and their sacrifice. I just get the honor
of wearing (the medal) for them."
Gutierrez received the Air Force Cross for actions
during a four-hour battle in Herat Province, Afghanistan, in October
2009. The team was ambushed during a high-risk night raid to capture
the number two Taliban leader in the region. The team leader was shot
in the leg, and the remaining ten-man team was trapped in a building
with no escape route. Assigned as the joint terminal attack controller
to an Army Special Forces detachment, Gutierrez's job was to call in
air support for his teammates.
During the firefight, he was shot in the chest and
suffered a collapsed lung. Still, Gutierrez continued to return fire
while calling in precision strafing runs from an A-10 Thunderbolt II
nearby. Though bleeding out and struggling to inhale enough oxygen to
breathe, let alone speak into his radio, death was not on his mind, he
"Your time is in front of you. You're not thinking of
that," he said. "I was thinking, 'I am going to do everything I can to
get the mission done before I bleed out.'"
Following the first strafing run, the team medic
re-inflated Gutierrez's lung with a needle decompression, which allowed
him to direct two more strafing runs within 30 feet of enemy forces,
decimating the enemy and allowing the team to escape.
For Villegas, learning he would receive the Silver Star
came as a surprise to the Del Rio, Texas, native.
"I didn't expect this. I was told I was nominated, and
it was an honor. But to receive it ... it's the biggest honor I can
have," he said. "This is for my guys. They put their lives on the line
each day. I'm taking this on behalf of all of those guys out there."
In September 2009, Villegas was clearing a road of
improvised explosive devices near Bagh Khosak, Afghanistan, when his
team was ambushed. Villegas ran 200 feet across an open minefield to
achieve a better position from which he could return fire with his
personal weapon while calling in air support. As the only JTAC assigned
to an Army Special Forces team, Villegas directed precision firepower
from artillery, as well as fixed- and rotary-wing assets, to kill 32
enemy insurgents during the 16-hour firefight and save the lives of his
While there were many heroes in the crowd wearing the
Air Force uniform, Schwartz also pointed out the unsung family members
who sacrifice for their Airman so they may serve their country.
"Your quiet, understated sacrifice gives deep personal
meaning to your loved ones' service," Schwartz said to the families of
Gutierrez and Villegas. "You have my personal thanks and the
appreciation of a grateful nation, and certainly the appreciation of
the U.S. Air Force." Demetria Saucedo, Villegas' mother, said it is
days like these that make the sacrifice worthwhile. "It was a lot of
sleepless nights while he was gone, but today is a good day," Saucedo
said. "I am so proud of my son."