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Former Airman Receives Silver Star for Afghanistan Heroics

Silver Star
Silver Star

Benjamin Hutchins received one of the nation's highest awards for valor Friday.

Later that day, he celebrated with family, friends and former colleagues.

The medal, the Silver Star, likely found its way onto a wall in his Fayetteville home.

And today, Hutchins got back to work -- raising two daughters with his wife, Heather, and running his own construction business, American Woodworkery.

The Air Force calls Hutchins a hero.

But the former airman believes he was just doing his job when, in November 2009, he jumped into a cold Afghanistan river in hopes of saving two 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers and again, two days later, when he charged an enemy fighting position across an open field to take out fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades, a machine gun and sniper rifles.

RELATED: Airman to Get Silver Star for Leading River Evacuation Under Fire

"To everybody else, it's heroics," Hutchins said before looking across a room of airmen. "But to all these guys out there . it's part of the job. This is me getting recognized for something they would do every day if needed."

Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Deale, who pinned the Silver Star to Hutchins' lapel, agreed that the Air Force's battlefield airmen -- service members who serve on the front lines of combat -- are a special breed.

Joint Terminal Attack Controllers have a big responsibility, he said. They advise, coordinate and control air support in the most hectic and dangerous of situations.

But Deale disagreed with Hutchins' assertion that he was not special among that already special group.

Instead, he said the former airman would be immortalized within the halls of his former unit -- where his actions would be displayed alongside other Silver Star recipients -- and in Air Force history.

"We're proud of you. We are proud to have served with you," Deale said.

According to his Silver Star citation, then-Airman 1st Class Hutchins repeatedly risked his own life while trying to protect others while deployed to Afghanistan with soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

He was part of a group sent to retrieve an aerial resupply in the early hours of a cold November morning, according to officials.

With enemy fighters watching, one of the supply bundles landed in the Bala Murghab River, and the two soldiers who originally went to retrieve it were unprepared for the might of the river and were swept away.

Hutchins dropped his personal protective gear, or "battle rattle," and dove into the frigid water to try to save the soldiers, Sgt. Brandon Islip and Spc. Benjamin Sherman.

Years later, Hutchins said he was simply reacting based on training.

"Trust me, I wasn't thinking," he said.

But with enemy forces shooting from an opposite riverbank, Hutchins didn't hesitate. He repeatedly ducked underwater looking for the soldiers. When coming up for air, he exposed only his mouth and nose as he tried to remain hidden from the enemy troops, whose bullets splashed within feet of his position.

Two days later, while on a patrol near the river while searching for the bodies of the drowned soldiers, Hutchins and two other soldiers, disregarding their own safety, charged an enemy fighting position across an open field to take out heavily armed fighters.

Hutchins is credited with killing one enemy armed with a grenade launcher, then provided targeting information for an overhead MQ-1 Predator to destroy the remaining fighters with a Hellfire missile.

Hutchins, who medically retired as a staff sergeant in 2014 after being severely injured during 2012, previously served with the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron, 18th Air Support Operations Group at Fort Bragg.

He received the Silver Star in the 18th ASOG headquarters, wearing a suit and sporting a lengthy beard.

Deale said Hutchins did not want a big ceremony or any extra attention.

He would have preferred something behind closed doors, Deale said. Or, preferably, for the Air Force to just slip the medal in the mail.

But that wouldn't have been fair to those who served with him and those who care about him, officials said.

"This is bigger than Ben. . This is also about your family," Deale said. "It's about your brothers in arms."

Deale said Hutchins relented to the ceremony, but did have one request.

If a general officer was going to pin the Silver Star, then Hutchins wanted that general to be "an A-10 guy."

Deale, director of operations for Air Combat Command, fulfilled that request.

He is the Air Force's senior A-10 pilot on active duty.

He also has a history with Hutchins, having pinned the airman's Purple Heart to him during a visit to an Afghan hospital in 2012.

Hutchins said his request was rooted in his respect for the A-10 and his belief that it's the most important airplane when it comes to protecting U.S. troops.

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