Airman to get Silver Star for leading river evacuation under fire

Silver Star | Public Domain

Silver Star | Public Domain

An airman who braved enemy fire to save fellow troops during a river evacuation in Afghanistan in 2009 will receive a Silver Star for his bravery, a general said.

Airman First Class Benjamin Hutchins, a tactical air control party airman supporting the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, was approved for the military’s third-highest valor award in April and will receive the honor during a ceremony Nov. 4 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, an official said.

Also read: Possible Medal of Honor upgrade would be the first based on drone imagery

His heroic actions during a three-day period through Nov. 6, 2009, were recounted during a speech by Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, on Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference near Washington, D.C.

“This is an example of our airmen,” Carlisle said.

Hutchins and a team of soldiers were on the west bank of the Bala Murghab River looking for a supply airdrop, Carlisle said. One of the canisters fell off target into the swift-moving river, and two soldiers swam out to retrieve it.

But Taliban militants on the east side of the river were watching.

The soldiers were swept out by a “strong current they weren’t anticipating,” Carlisle said. “Airman Hutchins jumps into the river after [them] … but the Taliban start[ed] shooting at the last man in the water.”

Hutchins, swimming around the frigid waters for roughly an hour, evaded Taliban fire by skimming the surface “with [only] his nose and mouth” while diving back down to find the troops.

Additional soldiers with the 82nd Airborne soon came to the aid of all three men. But the Taliban began another firefight — with machine guns, sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades — on the east bank the following day.

“They come out, and start running across an open field and take on the Taliban. They take out the rocket propeller, the machine gun. There’s still dealing with the snipers, but Hutchins, being a TACP, gets on the radio … calls in a [strike] from an MQ-1 Predator in a danger-close situation, but … it takes out the Taliban,” Carlisle said.

The award’s narrative, written by the airman’s former supervisor, Master Sgt. Donald Gansberger, describes the action in even more detail.

“Airman Hutchins moved under heavy and accurate rocket propelled grenade, machine gun and sniper fire across an open field with little to no cover or concealment,” it states. “While continuing to move forward, he managed to direct the sensors of overhead close air support while simultaneously providing accurate supporting fire with his M-4 rifle.”

“He killed one enemy armed with a rocket propelled grenade launcher, at close range, before the enemy could fire and wounded an additional enemy fighter all while providing targeting and controlling information to an overhead unmanned aerial vehicle that destroyed a second enemy fighting position with a Hellfire missile,” the document states.

“Airman Hutchins’ quick, decisive actions, tactical presence and calm demeanor enabled friendly forces to eventually overwhelm the enemy stronghold,” it states. “His actions forced the enemy fighters to break contact and relinquish critical ground to friendly forces which enabled the safety of the recovery efforts for the two missing Soldiers.”

In an ironic twist, Carlisle said, “they did eventually get their container back.”

The Air Force previously said Hutchins had been submitted for the Bronze Star Medal with Valor. However, the service later clarified Hutchins had instead been submitted for two Bronze Star medals for his actions, which instead were combined into one Silver Star award.

Hutchins medically retired from the Air Force in 2014 with injuries sustained as a result of enemy attack during a separate deployment in 2012, Air Combat Command told Military.com.

The Defense Department is reviewing more than 1,100 post-9/11 valor citations to determine if they warrant a higher award such as the Medal of Honor, officials announced in January.

In 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of all decorations and awards programs “to ensure that after 13 years of combat the awards system appropriately recognizes the service, sacrifices and action of our service members,” officials told USA Today at the time.

The latest review is due to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter by Sept. 30, 2017.

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