CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan --
The Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway presented the Purple Heart Medal to a crew chief from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), during a ceremony on the flight line here Aug. 20.
Cpl. Estanislao Alvarez, a Sacramento, Calif., native, received the medal during a ceremony in his squadron’s hangar for wounds suffered while resupplying special operations Marines in Helmand province June 16.
Alvarez and his crew, along with a second Huey, landed in a “hot zone” – a landing zone under enemy fire – to deliver water and ammunition to anxiously-waiting Marines. Both helo crews became the targets of the heavy fire. They worked quickly as, rounds cut through their aircraft. While offloading their supplies, the lead pilot on the Huey adjacent to Alavrez’s was severely wounded when a round tore through both of his legs and elbow.
Then, as the Huey carrying Alvarez lifted off with him manning the .50-caliber door gun, a 7.62 mm bullet splintered the aircraft's doorframe, sending shrapnel from the round and the aircraft into his right forearm. Even after sustaining an injury, Alvarez didn't leave his gun; recalling that he barely registered the pain. Instead of shying away from the incoming fire, Alvarez, bleeding from multiple lacerations, affectively engaged the insurgents trying to bring down his aircraft.
"My adrenaline was high so when it happened it just felt like a little pinch, and I knew to just keep returning fire,” said Alvarez. “It didn't start hurting until we were out of the hot zone."
Alvarez says Sgt. Matthew Cummings, another crew chief with HMLA-369, flying with Alvarez that day, reacted quickly, stopping the bleeding and dressing his wound.
"I remember looking down and seeing blood on my arm; [Cummings] cut my sleeve off and started wrapping it," said Alvarez. "I turned to look for the other aircraft and when I turned back my arm was already wrapped up."
Alvarez said Cummings is one of his mentors, and credits his quick actions and steady attitude for keeping him calm.
Alvarez's pilot flew back to Camp Bastion, bypassing the flight line and landing at the hospital instead, where Alvarez and the wounded pilot were rushed inside for emergency care.
Although Alvarez had already demonstrated extreme courage under fire, he demonstrated his true devotion to the Marine Corps and to his brothers while recovering in the hospital. Alvarez, with a wife of one year waiting at home, was told he could go home to recover from his wounds – he refused.
"The guys who came to the hospital to check on us inspired me. I couldn't just leave them behind," he said.
Alvarez’s family members were a little shaken when they first heard he was wounded, he explained. However, they are proud of him and support his decision to stay in Afghanistan with his unit.
“When I heard he was hurt I was just concerned about how bad and if he was okay,” said Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Daffern, the flight line staff non-commissioned officer in charge for HMLA-369. “But when I found out he asked to stay, I thought that said a lot about what kind of Marine he is.”
Alvarez, serving on his first deployment, received eight stitches in one of his gashes and one stitch in another. He was back on the flight line in less than two weeks and returned to the sky after about a month, flying his first mission July 9. Although returning to the sky was enough reward for him, Alvarez received further recognition for his sacrifice about a month after flying that return mission.
The commandant and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent visited Alvarez Aug. 20 and presented him with a Purple Heart medal for his wounds. Gen. Conway thanked Alvarez for his sacrifice and explained he was happy to present the medal to a Marine already recovered from his wounds.
Before leaving, the commandant addressed the Marines of HMLA-369 to thank them for their hard work, and expressed his pride in Alvarez’s actions and dedication to his fellow Marines. He then turned to Alvarez and, with a smile, ordered him not to earn another one.