Staff Sgt. Alexander Yessayan said he's not a hero, and you might just believe him unless you talk to anyone who knows him, or he begrudgingly tells you about what happened more than a year ago in Afghanistan.
Those who know him use words like humble, straight shooter and, yes, hero to describe Sergeant Yessayan after his actions Nov. 29, 2009, while conducting route reconnaissance to find a better way to access a remote village.
Sergeant Yessayan joined a select group of battlefield Airmen to be recognized in the Air Force's "Portraits in Courage" series Dec. 10. The series tells the stories of Airmen recognized for heroism, valor and sacrifice and was developed to highlight the honor, valor, devotion and selfless sacrifice of America's Airmen.
"I was lucky to have served with so many real heroes that some of their courage rubbed off on me that day," said Sergeant Yessayan, a client systems craftsman with the 53rd Combat Communications Squadron. "There are plenty more heroes who do this every day, year after year. Those, and the ones who never made it home, are America's true heroes."
It was a day of attempted adversary ambushes and quick decisions by Sergeant Yessayan and others that saved American lives. Actions that earned him the Air Force Combat Action Medal, Army Achievement Medal and the Army Combat Action Badge.
The native of Cleveland, was gunner for the number three Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle in a five-vehicle convoy working route recon to find a way into Mamuzi village.
"The village had been cut off from its local government and we were trying to reestablish that link," Sergeant Yessayan said.
The convoy halted at a stream to make sure it was safe to cross. As soon as they started rolling again, they were attacked with bracketed mortar fire. As the gunners tried to find the origin of the mortars, the convoy received small arms, rocket propelled grenades and (machine gun) fire from three sides.
"The first was a tree line at my 10 o'clock," Sergeant Yessayan said. "I suppressed the enemy with fire from my M240B machine gun. As I rotated my turret to identify the other enemy positions, an RPG flew about five feet over my head and impacted behind us."
The convoy was taking fire from two qulats, or mud fortresses, about the size of four houses put together.
"I engaged the first qulat with my M240B and at around round 250, my retention spring snapped sending the butt stock barreling into my chest," Sergeant Yessayan said. "I'm certain that without my body armor it would have cracked my sternum and ribs."
The convoy began to exit the kill zone.
"My driver, Senior Airman Christopher Bourand, quickly identified incoming friendly fire from another vehicle and diverted us out of harm's way in the nick of time," Sergeant Yessayan said. "He saved my life. He saw the tracer rounds and identified that we had about two seconds from entering friendly fire. He halted the truck and called off the incoming fire so we could continue our exit. At my height in the truck, my turret would have been directly impacted by friendly fire. At the time, I was exposed in the turret because I was aiming my M203 (grenade launcher). I was completely oblivious to the situation until after the fact. So when I say he saved my life, I truly mean it."
Sergeant Yessayan scrambled to try to fix his weapon. (Now Staff Sgt.) Bourand, from the 100th Communications Squadron and one of the passengers, spotted the enemy flanking their position.
"I immediately cycled to M-4 with under barrel M203 grenade launcher," Sergeant Yessayan said. "I fired one 40mm grenade at the enemy trio. The impact was directly on top of them. From there, we exited the kill zone and regrouped at an Afghan National Army check point."
Sergeant Yessayan said he takes no joy in what he had to do that day, but has no regrets because he was protecting his friends.
"For me it was just listening to my brothers over the radio and remember my training," he said. "Adrenaline takes over from there. All I wanted was to get me and my friends out of there."
"His being recognized in 'Portraits of Courage' is an awesome addition to his distinguished service in Afghanistan," said Lt. Col. Carlos Halcomb, Sergeant Yessayan's deployed commander and the current Space Shuttle Termination and Retirement Division chief at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. "Alexander is a fine (NCO). He and others with like experiences in Afghanistan should be out spreading the word for the Air Force at large to understand the complexities of today's combat environment."
For Sergeant Yessayan, it's all about team. He said he is honored to have been selected for the "Portraits in Courage" series, but won't stop talking about the Soldiers and other Airmen that he served with.
"I would never call myself a true soldier," he said. "I can't take credit for what the Army does on a daily basis. I'm proud to be an Airman. I just tried to do the best I could without letting anyone down."
"I'm extremely proud of him and all the members of my unit," said Maj. Thorsten Curcio, the 53rd CBCS commander. "Staff Sergeant Yessayan's actions exemplify the warrior ethos we embrace as combat communicators, as well as emphasize the type of situations any of us may find ourselves in. (He) is an extremely humble young man, who actively espouses the role of his entire team in the engagement that occurred that day. Nevertheless, his actions were extraordinary. I can only hope each of us would be able to conduct ourselves in the same composed and courageous manner given the same circumstances."
Sergeant Yessayan's wing commander agreed.
"We are all very proud of Staff Sgt. Yessayan," said Col. Theresa Giorlando, the 689th Combat Communications Wing commander. "Not only for his actions on that fateful day, but for his professionalism and humility he exhibits every day."
Article by Tech. Sgt. Scott McNabb, 24th Air Force Public Affairs