NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A tactical air control party airman will be honored with the Silver Star for a dangerous and watery rescue of his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, and charging a Taliban position in a subsequent battle two days later.
Then-Airman 1st Class Benjamin Hutchins, a tactical air control party airman, was deployed to Afghanistan in November 2009, serving alongside soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, said Gen. Hawk Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, in a speech Tuesday at the Air Force Association's Air Space Cyber conference. Hutchins and the soldiers were on the west bank of the Murghab River one cold morning, watching a resupply airdrop of cargo containers when one fell off-target and splashed down in the river, Carlisle said.
Two soldiers jumped in to recover it, Carlisle said, but misjudged how fast the river was flowing and were quickly pulled downriver. Hutchins sprang into action, Carlisle said. He stripped off his armor, helmet and other gear that would weigh him down, and dove in after them.
Taliban fighters on the east side of the river took notice and opened fire at Hutchins as he bobbed down the river. According to a 2010 Portraits in Courage summary of Hutchins' heroism, bullets splashed within three meters of his body. Hutchins stayed underwater as much as possible so the Taliban couldn't see him, Carlisle said, and only allowed his nose and mouth to break the surface to take a breath as the current carried him along.
Despite the attack, Hutchins refused to leave the two soldiers and kept trying to rescue them until other soldiers from the 82nd arrived. Those reinforcements laid down suppressing fire to fight off the Taliban on the east bank, while helping drag Hutchins and the two soldiers to shore, "cold, but doing OK," Carlisle said.
Eventually, Carlisle said, the soldiers got the troublesome container out of the river.
Two days later, while he was on a patrol, another firefight with the Taliban broke out -- and again Hutchins didn't back down.
Hutchins — "with complete disregard for his personal safety," according to a narrative accompanying his Silver Star citation — and three other soldiers volunteered to come out from behind their concealment and engaged the Taliban, which had a machine gun position, a fighter with rocket-propelled grenades and snipers.
"They start running across an open field, taking on the Taliban on the east bank of the river," Hutchins said. "They take out the rocket-propelled grenade, they take out the machine gun, they're still dealing with the snipers."
According to the Silver Star citation, Hutchins directed the sensors of a close-air support aircraft overhead while advancing on the enemy and firing on the Taliban with his M4 rifle.
And then, Carlisle said, Hutchins heard the operator of a nearby Predator drone check in over his radio, offering help. Hutchins called in a Hellfire missile airstrike to take out additional nearby Taliban in a "danger close" situation, helping win the battle, he said.
"By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Airman Hutchins has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force," the citation said.
Air Combat Command said Hutchins was originally going to be awarded two Bronze Stars with Valor devices for his bravery those two days. But they were consolidated into a Silver Star, which he will receive Nov. 4 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Hutchins was medically retired from the Air Force in 2014 for injuries he sustained in combat in 2012.
"We are successful, as an Air Force today, on the backs of our airmen" like Hutchins, Carlisle said.
Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.