A well-known Air Force special tactics operator’s Air Force Cross was not upgraded to a Medal of Honor during a recent military-wide review of valor awards. But that doesn’t bother him, and he said the focus should be on another airman who is still slotted for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest award for valor.
“I’m more thankful, actually, to be alive," Master Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, an Air Force combat controller, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday during an Air Force special operations panel. “Awards are awards, which is fine, but what I value more is serving my country.”
Gutierrez received the Air Force Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor, for his actions supporting an Army Special Forces and Afghan commando team in Herat province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 5, 2009.
Over the course of a multi-hour gunfight, he continued directing airstrikes despite suffering from a gunshot wound to the upper shoulder that "resulted in two broken ribs, a broken scapula, softball-sized hole in his back, and collapsed lung,” according to an Air Force release.
Not to mention, he added, “we are very fortunate to even have someone who’s already up for the Medal of Honor: John Chapman — huge deal for us."
Gutierrez was referring to fellow Air Force combat controller Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, who died in eastern Afghanistan in 2002 while attached to SEAL Team 6 during Operation Anaconda.
Chapman’s death has raised some controversy in recent months over the possibility that he was not in fact dead when the SEAL team he was supporting left him behind at the Battle of Roberts Ridge.
Newly enhanced drone footage and an autopsy of the fallen operator purportedly support the conclusion that he fought on, alone after the SEALs departed. Those findings allegedly remain the basis of a Medal of Honor upgrade request.
The Air Force has been tight-lipped about Chapman’s upgrade from his current Air Force Cross. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has reportedly recommended his award be elevated to the Medal of Honor, but that has yet to be confirmed by the White House.
If it goes through, Chapman would be the first airman to receive a Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
One of Gutierrez’s former teammates, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, did receive the Medal of Honor, which he reflected on during the panel.
“It is very difficult to measure yourself against someone’s actions that are so brave they would sacrifice themselves for everyone,” Gutierrez said.
Miller died on Jan. 25, 2008, while conducting a reconnaissance patrol through Afghanistan’s Gowardesh Valley, according to his Medal of Honor citiation. Miller’s team was caught in a near ambush, forcing him to react quickly and charge the enemy.
“As point man, Staff Sergeant Miller was at the front of the patrol, cut off from supporting elements, and less than 20 meters from enemy forces,” the citation reads. “He called for his men to quickly move back to covered positions as he charged the enemy. … Miller was shot in his upper torso. Ignoring the wound, he continued to push the fight, moving to draw fire from over one hundred enemy fighters upon himself."
Miller later charged again through an open area in order to allow his teammates to safely reach cover. He reportedly killed at least 10 insurgents before being mortally wounded by enemy fire.
“How do you measure up to actions so great?” Gutierrez said. “I’ve seen it in real life, and you’re in such awe."
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.