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Face of Defense: Airman Risks Everything, Upholds Legacy of Valor

By Air Force Senior Airman Victoria Taylor 100th Air Refueling Wing

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RAF MILDENHALL, England, March 24, 2016 — For Air Force Staff Sgt. Vicente Gomez, his May 12, 2014, trip to RAF Mildenhall started off as it would have on any other day. He pulled out of the driveway just after the sun began to set at 9:40 p.m. and began what had become a familiar drive to work.

But as he made the usual right turn onto Eriswell Road, he came across smoke rising from two vehicles that had collided moments earlier. A third car had been run off the road.

Gomez, a crew chief with the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, slammed on his brakes and flipped on his hazard lights.

As smoke billowed from beneath the mangled hulks that were working vehicles only minutes earlier, Gomez sprinted to the nearest car, which had come to rest at the edge of a trench.

“My body was overcome with adrenaline,” he recalled. “Once I reached the wreck and saw that the driver was stuck inside the car, I went into panic mode.”

The man inside the vehicle was conscious, Gomez said, but in shock and trying to escape.

“His car was on fire and spreading quickly. I grabbed him from his waist and pulled with everything I had, but his legs were pinned beneath the dashboard,” he said. “Every time I pulled, I felt like I was breaking bones and it seemed almost impossible to get him out.”

Thinking he couldn’t do it by himself, Gomez noticed a line of cars pulled over on either side of the road and ran for help.

“I remember about four to six people standing out of their vehicles looking at me with their phones to their ears as I screamed for help, but all I received in return were blank stares,” the airman said.

Not Giving Up

Receiving no response, he ran back to the crash victim and again tried to pry him from the wreckage as the front end of the car became engulfed in flames.

“The heat was so intense, but I still had time to try to get him out,” Gomez said. “And I wasn’t going to give up on him.”

With time running out and his energy dwindling, he made one final attempt to free the driver.

“The driver was conscious enough to where, together, he and I were able to get his legs unpinned,” Gomez said. “Once free, I was able to pull him out of the car through his door window.”

As he dragged the victim from harm’s way, the vehicle’s interior filled with flames. The struggle to ensure that they both reached safety left the staff sergeant utterly exhausted.

“I was overcome with relief thinking that it was all over and that I could rest, but then I saw the other car,” Gomez said.

Panic Ensues

“I don’t know how I missed it, I think that I just blocked it from my vision when I was struggling to get the man out of the first car,” he said.

Not knowing if the other victim of the crash got out of their car, Gomez ran back over to the scene to inspect.

“When I saw that she was trapped in the car the exact same way that the man was, I was terrified,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get her out because I was so exhausted, but I still had to try.”

Gomez hurried to the driver’s door and attempted to pry it open, but it was jammed closed and her window had been rolled up. Noticing the passenger door appeared to be unlocked he quickly made his way over to open it.

“I got in and grabbed her waist in an attempt to pull her, but her legs were pinned under the dashboard in the same way the man’s were,” the airman said. “I began to pull her sideways, but she started screaming in excruciating pain, so I stopped instantly.”

Assuming that the woman’s legs were badly broken, he said he tried to think quickly. The flames were taking over the interior of the vehicle and sweat was beading on his forehead from the extreme heat. His boots were caked in soot from the debris that was smoldering around him.

“It honestly crossed my mind that I was going to watch this woman burn alive in her car if I didn’t get help,” Gomez said.

Help From an Unexpected Source

Just when he felt all hope vanishing, the airman said, someone stumbled over.

“I saw a man coming out of the ditch and immediately waved him over to help me,” Gomez said.

Not recognizing that the man he called over to help him was part of the initial crash -- he was in the vehicle sent into the trench beside the engulfed automobiles -- they began working together trying to free the woman before time ran out.

They managed to unpin the women’s legs and pull her through the back door. Knowing she was badly hurt, the two men carefully carried her until her painful screams forced them to stop.

“I was so thankful that he showed up when he did,” Gomez said, “because I know without him I would have never gotten her out of that car or been able to move her away from the wreckage without further damaging her already broken body.”

Once they reached a safe distance, the airman noticed a few bystanders tending the victims of the crash. He then called the woman’s husband to alert him of his wife’s status.

“She screamed out his phone number in an agonizing cry, and when he answered I tried to explain what happened, but I could barely catch my breath and he didn’t understand what I was trying to say,” Gomez said. “The woman then shouted ‘Baby, I’ve been in an accident!’ and he understood perfectly.”

After catching his breath, the airman was able to clarify for the woman’s husband where they were and he arrived minutes later.

“The second he got there, he fell to his knees while watching his wife’s car continue to go up in flames,” Gomez said. “He panicked and yelled ‘Please tell me she isn’t in this car, please!’ My heart sank seeing him there and all I could think about was if I showed up to the same thing after hearing my wife was in an accident.”

He said he was finally able to wave the man over to reunite him with his wife, but the cars were still engulfed in flames and worry began to rush back.

“I was nervous the fire department wasn’t going to get there in time to extinguish the cars,” the airman said. “I was hoping that everyone was at a safe enough distance in case the flames reached the gas tank and set off an explosion.”

While bystanders helped the victims, Gomez took advantage of the momentary break to gather himself.

“After everything and driving to work, I could feel my adrenaline fleeting,” he said. “My body felt as if I had just worked out the hardest I ever had; I was completely sore.”

Honoring Heroism

Nearly 22 months after the accident, Gomez was presented with a citation and distinction identifying his act of fearlessness.

“Staff Sgt. Vicente Gomez distinguished himself by heroism involving voluntary risk of life at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, on 12 May 2014,” began the master of ceremonies. “On this date, Sergeant Gomez arrived upon the scene immediately after a three-car collision.”

As the emcee recounted the actions that saved the lives of two individuals, Air Force Col. Thomas D. Torkelson, the 100th Air Refueling Wing commander, pinned the Airman’s Medal on the lapel of Gomez’s uniform for his selfless actions on that night.

With a steady voice, the emcee concluded, “The exemplary courage and heroism displayed by Sergeant Gomez reflects great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”