97th AMW command chief shares Purple Heart story, leadership lessons

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Miyah Gray
  • 97th Air Mobility Public Affairs

The smell of phosphorus and the sounds of screaming woke Staff Sgt. Cesar Flores from unconsciousness after his Security Forces convoy was hit with an improvised explosive device near Camp Bucca, Iraq, June 15, 2007.

More than 15 years later, Flores is now a chief master sergeant and serves as the 97th Air Mobility Wing command chief. On June 17, 2022, Flores shared his story with Airmen that eventually led him to receiving a Purple Heart medal.

The Purple Heart is awarded to service members who have been wounded or killed while serving in the United States military.

Flores said he chose to share his story with noncommissioned officers to pass on the leadership values he learned as an NCO. He spoke on the importance of getting to know your Airmen and accepting that there’s more than one way to lead.

“Once you get to know someone and make a connection, you're able to forge a better relationship with them,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Voorhees, 97th Training Squadron student affairs noncommissioned officer in charge. “Where that impacts the most is going to be when you get into stressful situations, particularly under fire, and you can rely on them because you've built that foundation of trust. I think we as individuals can build these barriers based on our previous experiences and how we see the world.”

Flores reflected on a deployment to Camp Bucca, where he met Senior Airman Duane Dunlap, the gunner of his patrol group. Flores stated that it is because of Dunlap that he is able to tell his story.

“He and I did not get along at all,” said Flores. “He tended to question everything. Back then, my one way of leading was to get in line or get off the bus, so we did not jive well.”

Their duty was to clear the roads of IEDs so that convoys could access the installation without difficulty.

“Convoys weren't the most dangerous mission. It was to go patrol the roads before they got there. That was the most dangerous mission,” said Flores. “We were driving and a berm just went off. When the blast hit us, it knocked me unconscious. When I regained consciousness, it was hell on earth. I was literally on fire. I smelled what I believe was white phosphorus. I heard someone screaming. It was Duane.”

Flores said the blast had caved in the right side of the door, leaving him stuck in his seat calling for help.

“My gunner, Dunlap, had the presence of mind to grab me by the body armor and just pull until I came out of there and we were both laying down in the middle (of the vehicle),” he said. “I crawled to the back, opened the rear door and rolled out, Duane came shortly after. My weapon was melted, so I had no gun to defend myself with. When he rolled out, he was on the ground and I was covered in his blood. I thought maybe I got hit, so I started checking myself, but it was actually him. He got hit by a piece of shrapnel the size of a baseball to his leg and still had the presence of mind to pull me out of my predicament.”

Flores explained how another NCO in the lead vehicle proceeded to clear the road by foot, and if an IED had gone off, he would’ve been killed instantly.

A security forces Airman trained in combat lifesaving experience tended to Dunlap upon initial contact. The Airman was able to control the bleeding and bring him to safety. Dunlap was medically evacuated to Germany and later transported to the Brooke Army Medical Hospital in Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

“Duane Dunlap, the kid that I was about to fire, that I couldn't stand, ended up saving my life and being my angel in disguise,” said Flores. “I never took the time to know him past our trained duties and this became the primary reason I never really gave him a shot. A tech sergeant select, high-speed leader not knowing their Airman. That was embarrassing…someone that I didn't think much of ended up being the reason why I can see my (family) every day.”