First 24th AF Portraits in Courage recipient: I was just doing my job

Staff Sgt Alexander Yessayan, 53rd Combat Communications Squadron, sits in
the gunner's seat during a site survey while deployed to Afghanistan in
2009. Sergeant Yessayan was recognized in the Air Force's "Portraits in
Courage" series Dec. 10 for his actions while his convoy was under attack in
November of that year. 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. (U.S. Air Force
photo by Senior Airman Mark Moreno)

Staff Sgt. Alexander Yessayan, 53rd Combat Communications Squadron, sits in the gunner's seat during a site survey while deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. Sergeant Yessayan was recognized in the Air Force's "Portraits in Courage" series Dec. 10 for his actions while his convoy was under attack in November of that year. 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. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Mark Moreno)

Staff Sgt Alexander Yessayan, 53rd Combat Communications Squadron, shown on
a foot patrol in Paktya, Afghanistan. Sergeant Yessayan worked with Airmen,
Soldiers and civilian contractors during his deployment. He called them,
"the greatest group of individuals I have ever had the pleasure of serving with so far." (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt Marco Reyes)

Staff Sgt. Alexander Yessayan, 53rd Combat Communications Squadron, shown on a foot patrol in Paktya, Afghanistan. Sergeant Yessayan worked with Airmen, Soldiers and civilian contractors during his deployment. He called them, "the greatest group of individuals I have ever had the pleasure of serving with so far." (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marco Reyes)

Col. Theresa Giorlando, 689th Combat Communications Wing commander,
surprises Staff Sgt. Alexander Yessayan, 53rd Combat Communications
Squadron, with a plaque Dec. 6. The plaque includes the pages dedicated to
him for being included in the "Portraits in Courage" series. Sergeant
Yessayan became the first combat communications Airman and initial member of
24th Air Force to be recognized in the series Dec. 10. (Air Force photo by 2nd Lt.
Joel Cooke)

Col. Theresa Giorlando, 689th Combat Communications Wing commander, surprises Staff Sgt. Alexander Yessayan, 53rd Combat Communications Squadron, with a plaque Dec. 6. The plaque includes the pages dedicated to him for being included in the "Portraits in Courage" series. Sergeant Yessayan became the first combat communications Airman and initial member of 24th Air Force to be recognized in the series Dec. 10. (Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Joel Cooke)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Alexander Yessayan says he's not a hero and you might just believe him unless you talk to anyone who knows the man 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 Staff Sgt. Alexander Yessayan after his actions Nov. 29, 2009, while conducting route reconnaissance to find a better way to access a remote village.

"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.

Sergeant Yessayan joined a select group of battlefield Airmen to be recognized in the Air Force's "Portraits in Courage" series Dec. 10, 2010. 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.

The Cleveland, Ohio, native was gunner for the number three Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) 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," he 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 PKM (machine gun) fire from three sides.

"The first was a tree line at my 10 o' clock," said Sergeant Yessayan. "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," 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," said Sergeant Yessayan. "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," said Sergeant Yessayan. "He saved my life. He saw the tracer rounds and identified that we had about two seconds from entering friendly fire," said Sergeant Yessayan. "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. I was completely oblivious to the situation until after the fact. So when I say he saved my life I truly mean it."

The sergeant scrambled to try to fix his weapon. [Now Staff Sgt.] Bourand, 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," he 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."

Sergeant Yessayan grew up playing sports and going to as many Browns and Cavs games as he could. He understands what it means to be part of a team, and only a hurt knee kept him from the diagonal name patches of the Marine Corps.

"After looking into the Air Force, I was glad things ended up the way they did," he said. "I definitely found out what I love doing. This job is my life."

Part of that life includes the people who gave him opportunities to grow. Sergeant Yessayan said he had a mentor that guided him to be the future of the service.

This mentor he worked for and with stateside and deployed. Senior Master Sgt. Warren Johnson, 52nd Combat Communications Squadron Operations Flight Superintendent, talked to Sergeant Yessayan about his deployment as an advisor to the Iraqi Army in 2006-2007. He told his understudy about the sense of accomplishment he felt during that deployment. Sergeant Yessayan wanted that same kind of experience and jumped at the chance when the tasking to Afghanistan came out.

"I was not at all surprised by his actions or his ability to react well in a situation like this," Sergeant Johnson said of Sergeant Yessayan. "In the couple years that we worked together and when we deployed previously to Iraq he was always a 'straight shooter' on the mission. He wanted to do the job right the first time, take care of his people and avoid any additional 'drama.' So when he calmly described the event to me after he got back, I was amazed at his actions but not at all about how well he handled it."

One who knows firsthand how he handled it is Lt. Col. Carlos Halcomb, his commander from the deployment and current Space Shuttle Termination and Retirement Division chief at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. He called the sergeant a hero and said his inclusion in Portraits in Courage is well deserved.

"His being recognized in Portraits of Courage is an awesome addition to his distinguished service in Afghanistan," said Colonel Halcomb. "Alexander is a fine non-commissioned officer, 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. That's my challenge to the Air Force, for Alexander it would be a walk in the park."

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. He said it was Army Calvary 1st Lt. Richard Jordan and Army 1st Sgt. Gary Giddins who taught him how to be an honorable soldier.

"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."

Sergeant Yessayan said the men and women on that deployment have a special bond and it means a lot to him to be a part of that group.

"I keep in contact with as many people from my [Forward Operating Base] as I can - from the top officers to the lowest ranking Soldiers and Airmen," he said. "That was the greatest group of individuals I have ever had the pleasure of serving with so far. I was able to make lifelong friends with those people and I would go back out with them anytime, anywhere. I call some of them every weekend to talk smack about college football. I feel truly blessed to have met such an amazing group of heroes."

Like anyone who returns from a deployment, Sergeant Yessayan tries hard not to take the little things in life for granted.

"I'm really grateful and thankful to be able to come home and see my family and friends again," he said. "Most people don't realize how good they have it until it's gone or about to be ripped away. Life is precious. I definitely want to spend as much time as I can with family."

His Air Force family back at the 53 CBCS at Robins is proud to have him back with them and honored Sergeant Yessayan by presenting his Air Force Combat Action Medal in front of the entire group. They also presented him with a printed and framed version of his page from Portraits in Courage.

"I'm extremely proud of him and all the members of my unit," said Maj. Thorsten Curcio, 53 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, 689th Combat Communications Wing commander. "Not only for his actions on that fateful day, but for his professionalism and humility he exhibits every day. He truly embodies the combat comm beast!"