Of course Mario Gutierrez and Niel Johnson say they were just doing their jobs.
But in the eyes of the public – and of the president of the United States – Gutierrez, a Miami-Dade County police officer, and Johnson, a North Miami police officer, are heroes. And now with the Medal of Valor to prove it.
“It’s been said that perfect valor is doing without witnesses what you would do if the whole world were watching,” President Barack Obama said Monday as he bestowed the valor medal, the highest national honor awarded to a public safety officer, on the two South Florida police officers and 11 other honorees.
The officers, Obama said, all saved the lives of strangers and demonstrated courage “not in search of recognition,” but instinctively.
“We’re so grateful that they were there, some on duty, others off duty, all rising above and beyond the call of duty,” Obama said. “To a person, each of these honorees acted without regard for their own safety. They stood up to dangerous individuals brandishing assault rifles, handguns and knives.”
Gutierrez was cited for “bravery and composure while enduring a violent attack.” In his case, he subdued and later shot to death a knife-wielding assailant in October 2013 who attempted to set off a massive gas explosion that the White House said could have resulted in multiple fatalities.
The incident happened as Gutierrez spotted Domique Jean, 51, acting erratically at a Shell gas station on LeJeune Road near Miami International Airport. As Gutierrez approached on his motorcycle, Jean tried to set the gas pumps on fire. The two struggled. Gutierrez was stabbed, and Jean was shot dead.
“All I did was my job,” Gutierrez, who still bears scars from the stab wounds, told reporters after the event at the White House. “I fought hard to stay alive and survive it. I didn’t think anything of it afterward, but, ‘Let me get better; let me get back to work.’”
That work includes serving in the presidential motorcade when the president comes to town. Gutierrez said he has participated as one of the motorcycle riders who precede the presidential motorcade in Miami since Obama was a presidential candidate.
“This time was pretty different,” he said of the opportunity on Monday to meet Obama. “We actually got to spend some time and talk with him.”
Johnson was recognized for “swift and valorous action to end a violent crime spree.” In his case, he pursued, confronted and apprehended an armed man, Frantzy Armand, outside an apartment complex in Sans Souci, Florida.
The White House noted that Armand had already shot at a Miami police officer and shot two people.
Johnson said after the event he felt “silly” sharing a stage with wounded officers like Gutierrez and Los Angeles officer Donald Thompson, who suffered first- and second-degree burns while pulling an unconscious man to safety from a car.
“Listening to the stories of the other officers is totally awe-inspiring, but I know when I hear my own, it’s like ‘I did my job, let’s move on,’ ” Johnson said.
It’s your courage and quick thinking that gave us our safety, so we want to thank you for your service.
President Barack Obama
Obama noted that much of police work involves dangerous situations, and Johnson said that can be part of the job: “It’s taking the fear and having to conquer it, and having to face it, as opposed to hiding from it,” he said.
Obama noted that each of the officers would say they were only doing their jobs. But he added, “the men and women who run toward danger remind us, with your courage and humility, what the highest form of citizenship looks like.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained an error in the events related to Frantzy Armand’s violent rampage. Armand had shot at a Miami police officer and had shot two people when Niel Johnson confronted and apprehended him. The shot missed the Miami officer.