Thursday, April 16, 2009 | 2 a.m.
With his Humvee on fire after being ambushed by insurgents, injured Airman 1st Class Antonio Antunez pushed the squad’s translator out a door, escaped through the turret and then, under fire and the only one with a weapon, led his team to safety.
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Those actions in Iraq earned him a medal most commonly given to soldiers and Marines: the Bronze Star with valor.
Antunez, stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, is one of 282 airmen who have earned the commendation for combat actions since Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s a small number when compared with the 3,235 soldiers and 1,039 Marines who have earned them, but it reveals a changing warfare trend: Air Force personnel are increasingly involved in ground combat.
Antunez, 24, belongs to the growing ranks of “battlefield airmen” — enlisted Air Force personnel whose job is performed “outside the wire” — beyond a base perimeter.
The term made its way into the military vernacular as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan radically changed the role of many airmen.
“There are more airmen now involved with the pointy end of the mission,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael M. Dunn, president of the Air Force Association, says.
The expectations of the Air Force are in flux, according to Peter Singer, a military expert with the Brookings Institution.
In 2008 about 6,000 airmen performed nontraditional missions on the ground, often in roles normally carried out by other services, mainly the Army.
“What used to be extraordinary is now ordinary,” Singer said.
Based at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq last year, Antunez spent six days a week outside the wire on routine patrols and on security detail for the weekly transfer of detainees. Two hours before the transfer he would sweep for improvised explosives and other dangers, then return to base to escort the convoy.
Just 10 days into his first Iraq tour, Antunez found himself under fire.
• • •
Jan. 8, 2008, about 0200
Antunez and his squad are on patrol in four Humvees when an explosion goes off in the distance. They go to investigate. Antunez, the turret gunner in the lead vehicle, uses the spotlight to check the sides of the four-lane road for improvised explosives, easily undetected amid the roadside debris. When they pass a deserted Iraqi checkpoint, he grows suspicious.
Two miles later his Humvee hits an improvised explosive. Insurgents had lured them into an ambush.
The other three vehicles immediately back up 300 meters, as protocol dictates.
Antunez’s Humvee is on fire and .50-caliber machine gun rounds are exploding.
Antunez won’t forget the deafening sound.
The driver and the truck commander, both staff sergeants, jump out of the front doors of the Humvee.
Despite the noise, Antunez can hear the interpreter crying next to him. Antunez yells for him to get out, but the interpreter is frozen in place. Antunez reaches across the translator, opens the door and kicks the translator on the shoulder to knock him out of the burning vehicle. The door slams shut before Antunez can get out.
He passes out.
• • •
In November, because such combat is becoming common for its airmen, the Air Force made the biggest change to its basic military training since the Vietnam War by extending the length of the basic course for enlisted airmen from six weeks to eight and a half. The additional time allows for combat training in the field. They call the exercise “The Beast.”
They learn basic combat skills, such as how to fire an M-16 rifle, and are immersed in combat scenarios. Before, airmen would only receive this kind of training in a two-week course before their units deployed, but the Air Force decided it needed to be a part of the broad training for all airmen, Dunn said.
Airmen are needed to both relieve the strained Army and Marine Corps and to backfill in-demand jobs, such as explosive ordnance disposal specialists.
The Air Force realized there was a gap between the level of training and the expectations for deployed airmen.
• • •
Gaining consciousness, Antunez hears his name.
“Antunez! Antunez! Get out!”
To escape the fire, he starts to climb out the turret when insurgents open fire on him with small arms. Antunez doesn’t want to fire back with the .50-caliber machine gun for fear of striking civilians.
He grabs his M-4 rifle and shoots toward the tracers of the insurgent fire as he jumps off the top of the Humvee and scrambles to find the rest of his team nearby.
Neither staff sergeant has his weapon.
The translator is crying and, in panic, keeps turning on his flashlight.
Antunez yells at him to turn it off.
Taking command of the situation, Antunez recommends they stay put and they hold their position for 10 minutes. But as time drags on without rescue, he directs them to crawl toward the rest of the squad.
Meanwhile, the other vehicles start moving forward to ram the burned-up Humvee out of the kill zone.
Antunez and the three others are pulled into one of the approaching vehicles, and as someone radios in the injuries, they return the five miles to base.
• • •
The jobs battlefield airmen such as Antunez perform have recently garnered a proper name. Rather than serving “in lieu of” Marines and soldiers, as the billets were called for years, the Air Force has given them the moniker JET, for joint expeditionary taskings. Senior leadership wanted to better emphasize the Air Force’s contributions.
Antunez was hospitalized for seven days. He had shrapnel in his right hand, his stomach had been knocked out of place, and he needed surgery on a large hematoma on his left leg.
An Army general told him he would likely get the Bronze Star with valor.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Airmen don’t normally hear of such medals.
Five days after he was released from the hospital he was back outside the wire.
Antunez heads back to Iraq next month to mentor Iraqi police in Baghdad.