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Two Receive Soldiers Medal for Lifesaving Heroism

American Forces Press Service

ASAD, Iraq, Dec. 23, 2004 – Instant decisions and decisive action led to two soldiers receiving the Soldiers Medal here Dec. 18 for heroism in a fight to save the lives of four Cobra AH-1 attack helicopter pilots March 29.

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Army Staff Sgt. Spencer A. Howell, medic, and crew chief Army Spc. Eric S. Burns of the 507th Air Ambulance Company each received the Soldiers Medal on Dec. 18 in recognition of heroics performed on March 29. Photo courtesy of Coalition Press Information Center

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Staff Sgt. Spencer A. Howell and crew chief Spc. Eric S. Burns of the 507th Air Ambulance Company each received the Soldiers Medal from Marine Maj. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. The Soldiers Medal is the highest award given for noncombat heroism.

The events leading to the soldiers' receiving the medals would have tested the strength and reaction times of any well rested soldier, but the two had just returned from Al Taqaddum Air Base on an urgent medical evacuation mission.

After hearing a loud noise and seeing a flash of light, the duo realized two helicopters had collided. Without hesitation, Burns reported the collision and raced along with Howell to the crash site.

Howell explained the scene as he saw it. "While the rescue was taking place from first sight, both aircraft looked completely destroyed and pieces of the airframe were scattered everywhere," he said. Quinn's report described one helicopter on its side, and said the pilots could be seen trying to exit.

The other helicopter was situated upside down with the pilots still trapped inside, and the engines of the second helicopter were still running, on fire, and with electrical power still applied to the armed missiles, rockets and 20 mm onboard ammunitions. Both men began to extract the pilots from the second helicopter after Burns had quickly helped the two pilots escape from the first.

The canopy was still intact and restricting access to the cockpit, Quinn said. Both pilots were trapped as the flames continued to build. If the scene was not chaotic enough, a C-130 Hercules transport plane landed on the runway just feet from the scene, and the wingtip passed within feet of the burning wreckage, causing huge vortices that fanned the fire.

Firefighters arrived within moments of the collision and began spraying down the wreckage, which tended to push the flames toward the pilots. The flames were channeled up and over the aircraft, singeing the rescuers' hair, but the two remained steadfast.

This wasn't the final challenge Howell and Burns had to face. The pilot in the rear station was a large man, and all his weight was directly against the shoulder harnesses, making the release mechanism unusable. Howell, knowing time was precious, broke open the canopy and cut the jammed harnesses off the pilot with a survival knife.

Howell carried the pilot from the burning wreckage, then returned to help Burns, who was working to release an unconscious front-seat pilot as water, foam and flames encroached on them.

Burns removed all harnesses, but couldn't remove the pilot, whose foot was stuck in the wreckage. When Howell returned to help Burns, he lifted the pilot's weight and Burns reached into the twisted wreckage of the cockpit. With surgical skill, he cut the pilot's boot off.

After both pilots were released and carried to safety, Howell rendered medical aid to all four pilots and accompanied them to the battalion aid station. News of the soldiers' heroic efforts and successful rescue spread worldwide.

Burns was named the Dustoff Association's crew chief of the year. The Dustoff Association is a nonprofit organization for Army Medical Department personnel involved in aviation evacuation programs in war or peace.

Although Burns has had training in medical evacuation, he attributes knowing what to do in emergencies such as the one which saved the pilots' lives as "70 percent learned on the job."

"I was totally focused on saving the pilots, because they would have done the same if the roles were reversed," Burns said. He said he was just doing his job, and that anyone else in the 507th would have done the same.

Burns is from Arnold, Mo., and graduated from Fox High School there. Howell is originally from the Island of St. Kitts & Nevis in the Caribbean. His family relocated to Pontiac, Mich., where he graduated from Pontiac Central High School. Both are active duty soldiers in the 507th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), Fort Hood, Texas.

(Courtesy of Coalition Press Information Center, Baghdad, Iraq.)

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