FORT EUSTIS, Va. - U.S. Army 1st Sgt. William Howard, Hotel Company, 1st Battalion, 222nd Aviation Regiment first sergeant, earned the prestigious Soldier's Medal for his participation in a rescue effort July 3, 2014, in the aftermath of a rocket attack on the Joint Air Facility at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan. Howard and fellow Soldiers rushed to evacuate Afghan soldiers trapped inside a prayer room set ablaze by the attack, braving noxious smoke, flames and fumes on several trips into the burning hangar to successfully retrieve all personnel.
Army Regulation 600-8-22 outlines the criteria for awarding the Soldier's Medal as performance that “has involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy.” It is the highest honor a Soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation.
U.S. Army Col. Don Fallin, Special Mission Wing, Special Operations Join Task Force commander, left, awards 1st Sgt. William Howard, Hotel Company, 1st Battalion, 222nd Aviation Regiment, 128th Aviation Brigade first sergeant, a Soldier's Medal at Fort Eustis, Va., April 3, 2015. During Howard's sixth deployment, he helped save the lives of five Afghan soldiers after a rocket attack locked them inside of their prayer room in a hangar which had caught fire. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kimberly Nagle)
During a routine patrol of the airport, Howard heard the sound of rockets overhead, one of which flew over the airport, landing within the JAF occupied by MI-17 helicopters and PC-12 fixed-wing airplanes for the Afghan Special Mission Wing and striking an MI-17 fuel tank, resulting in an explosion.
Fearing the safety of those inside the hangar, Howard quickly entered a vehicle and sped toward the attack site. Upon arrival, he confirmed the second floor of the building was clear, but heard shouting from fellow Soldiers, indicating personnel trapped on the first floor.
As Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kevin Huggins and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Robert Moran called on Howard for help and Larry Hottot, he heard shouting and banging from a nearby door, behind which was a prayer room for Afghan soldiers.
“The doors were locked from [both sides] and warped from the heat,” said Howard. “We started using anything and everything we could to pry open those doors before someone brought us a heavy duty pry-bar.”
Once the doors were opened, two soldiers emerged under their own power followed by a cloud of smoke and heat, but three others remained inside, incapacitated.
“We just went in there without thinking,” said Howard. “We needed to get them all out no matter what.”
As the small recovery team retrieved the remaining soldiers inside the room, one of the injured began repeating “one more, one more, one more.” Despite being unable to immediately confirm if any personnel remained in the burning hangar, the Soldiers returned inside to look for survivors.
“Once we realized there was no one else in the room, the smoke started to get to us and we started to get turned around in the maze-like hangar,” said Howard. “I was pretty much crawling on the ground at this point, looking, reaching, hoping for a way out. I looked up and saw a beam of light, and shouted to my partners that I am going to go toward the light.”
The light was from the open hangar doors in which the team needed to reach to escape. While attempting to reach the doors through the mire of smoke and flames, a nearby fuel tank exploded, nearly injuring the rescuers. Despite the chaos of the engulfed hangar, the Soldiers managed to successfully escape, only to learn the building had not been entirely cleared.
Even after their harrowing rescue efforts, the four of them returned without hesitation into the building to search for additional persons, fortunately finding the building empty and everyone safely accounted for.
Only when the smoke had cleared and everyone had been examined by medical personnel did the gravity of the situation sink in for Howard.
“I could hardly even remember what happened; it was all sort of a blur,” he said. “Once everything settled I was on a sort of high, one that is difficult to explain. I didn't go into that building thinking about myself; I went in there thinking I needed to save these people.”
Howard said he believed it was his responsibility as a senior noncommissioned officer to save the lives of those trapped inside the building.
“Those stuck inside were my responsibility and as the senior enlisted, [I had] to do what the commander had charged me with: to take care of everyone, to include [those on] the Afghan side,” said Howard.
Colonel Don Fallin, Special Mission Wing commander, commended Howard's sense of responsibility and leadership in his remarks during the medal presentation ceremony.
“This is an important day for this great noncommissioned officer,” said Fallin. “While deployed together, I could always rely on him, I knew he was there. It was an honor to serve alongside him, [as] he did so many great things for out unit.”
Howard said he was humbled by the honor, and upheld his actions as necessary in the line of duty.
“I didn't do any of that for a medal; it wasn't about that for me,” he said. “The memory of those guys, before and after, is more of reward then anything I can receive. I did it for them, not for anybody else.”
(Editor's Note: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason J. Brown contributed to this report.)
By U.S. Army SSgt. Jason Brown and USAF Senior Airman Kimberly Nagle
Provided through DVIDS
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