USSTRATCOM Airman saves four people, awarded Airman's Medal for heroic actions

By United States Strategic Command Public Affairs | Aug. 21, 2020

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. —

Staff Sgt. Donald Thomas, was presented the Air Force’s Airman’s Medal by U.S. Navy Adm. Charles Richard, U.S. Strategic Command commander, during a ceremony here Aug. 21. The Airman’s Medal instituted on July 6, 1960, is awarded to service members who distinguish themselves by a heroic act, usually at the voluntary risk of their own life while not involving combat.

“I have to tell you that this act of courage was so overwhelming that I actually have trouble getting through it without choking up in terms of the courage was displayed by Staff Sgt. Thomas,” said Richard during the ceremony. “I actually think my biggest challenge here is making sure that I do justice to the level of what you did.”

On Oct. 5, 2018, Thomas, a member of the Defense Intelligence Agency Chief Information Office at U.S. Strategic Command, distinguished himself by heroism involving voluntary risk of life on I-40 near Okemah, Oklahoma.

While on leave with his family, Thomas came upon a traffic accident involving a dump truck and a government vehicle containing five agents from the Department of Energy.

“The accident happened and someone needed help and I was going to do whatever I could. I think in situations like that you just do what you can and you try to care and help where you can,” said Thomas.

And he did just that. Being the first on scene Thomas used a pocketknife to cut the driver’s seatbelt and directed two bystanders to pull the driver away from the vehicle as it quickly began to fill with smoke. Thomas then proceeded to the other side of the van where he managed to drag another victim out of harm’s way and on to the side of the road.

At this point with the van completely engulfed in smoke, Thomas returned to the vehicle and assisted with removing the remaining passengers. All of this taking place in less than two minutes.

With all the passengers safely removed from the vehicle, Thomas rendered aid to the passengers until help arrived.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Thomas and others on the scene, one member from the van succumbed to their injuries and died on the scene.

This wasn’t the first time Thomas was the first person to arrive on an accident scene, and he credits his military training for knowing exactly how to react and respond this time around.

“Unfortunately, I had been the first person to an accident before I joined the military and I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do in that situation. So just comparing now, versus then, I absolutely think my military training made a difference,” said Thomas. “I don’t think you can ever prepare for a trauma situation, but the rapid response medical training we’re given is just great for situations like that. It absolutely helps and it’s absolutely something that’s necessary.”

Although he was recognized for heroism, Thomas will tell you he’s no hero. He simply views himself as an ordinary guy.

 “I’m just like everybody else,” said Thomas. “I’m a dad, I play video games with my kids and I like to hunt and fish. I just happened to be the first to arrive at the accident scene and I did what I could to try and help. I would hope that in that situation, anybody else would do the same.”

During the ceremony Richard acknowledged Thomas’ humble nature, but expressed that it takes a special type of person to do what Thomas did.

“Most of us don’t have any one of the pieces, in terms of the physical ability, the mental ability, the courage, the training to do the stack of things you did on that day and I think it deserves a high honor,” said Richard. “We want you to know that we respect you and thank you for what you did.”

Thomas has since developed a close relationship with the people he saved that day. He talks with one survivor on a regular basis and periodically checks in on the other three to see how they are doing.