ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- Flares were shooting from planes, live rounds were whizzing by and fire bottles were exploding; but despite the hazards, an Airman from Royal Air Force Lakenheath ran toward the wreckage of the crash site to help pull injured service members to safety.
Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz, a 492nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit electrical environmental systems specialist, was awarded the Airman's Medal for saving the lives of three French airmen after a Hellenic air force F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed into the parking ramp at Los Llanos Air Base, Spain, during Tactical Leadership Program 15-1, Jan. 26.
Gen. Frank Gorenc, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, presented the prestigious award to Swarz in front of a packed hanger during the 48th Fighter Wing Maintenance Professional of the Year Awards Banquet, March 13.
"We are only going to be as good as our Airmen," Gorenc said. "Liberty Airmen are willing to go above and beyond what we expect normal people to do. Instead of running away from the fireball, they ran into the fireball. It was a validation of everything that is good about what we try to do in the Air Force."
For Swarz, receiving the medal from Gorenc was of special distinction.
"I'm extremely honored," said Swarz, regarding the Airman's Medal. "It's not something I expected to happen, especially since the general came. He also has the same medal, so it was an honor receiving the medal from him."
The Airman's Medal may be awarded to any member of the armed forces of the U.S. or of a friendly nation who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Air Force, has distinguished themselves by a heroic act, usually at the voluntary risk of their life.
"It was a very scary situation," Swarz said. "The fires were huge; I still think the fire wall was infinite. I just tried to stay calm and be rational about everything. We are trained on first response once a year. It helped a lot."
Swarz described the scene of the crash, where jet fuel was spraying all over the ramp, but there were a few pockets he could reach where he could see people in need of help. Swarz found a pocket and pulled one of the French airman a safe distance from the flames. The airman's clothes were still on fire, but an eyewitness recalled Swarz putting the flames out with his hands because the fire extinguishers weren't working.
After pulling a second French airman to safety, Swarz ran toward the wreckage again. As he dragged the third airman away, exhaustion began to set in and he stumbled. Swarz called for help and two Airmen came and helped him bring the French airman out of harm's way.
The third French airman lost his right hand in the crash. Swarz pulled his belt from his uniform to use as a tourniquet, saving his life by stemming the loss of blood.
"When staff sergeant Swarz needed to respond to save the lives of those three French airmen, he did, and he didn't hesitate," said Col. Robert Novotny, the 48th FW commander. "And when we decided staff sergeant Swarz deserved recognition for his actions, we asked the 3rd Air Force staff, the USAFE team, the Air Force Personnel Center and the Secretary of the Air Force's Office to act quickly. And they did (by) processing his medal in only ten days so we could present it to him in front of his colleagues at their annual awards banquet."
Swarz has kept in touch with a few of the French airmen he helped save. The wife of the second airman he pulled from the wreckage sends him updates every time she visits her husband in the Paris hospital where he is recovering.
"I am happy for them," Swarz said. "I don't think I did more than I had to do. I think I did what I should've done."
His strength of character and commitment to helping others is evident in what he told 1st Lt. Olivia Mills, the TLP 15-1 492nd AMU officer in charge, after leaving the crash site.
"His words to me right after the accident were, 'I wish I could've done more,'" Mills said. "He is an incredibly humble individual, and he saved three people's lives, but he wanted to do more. I have never been more proud of anyone."
The selflessness displayed during Swarz's heroic actions in Spain were articulated when he explained what he was thinking as he ran toward the intense heat, toxic smoke and flying debris.
"Honestly, I was thinking that there was a good chance that I might pass away as well," Swarz said. "I was just trying to get as many people out before that might happen."
Despite the tragedy, Swarz described positive experiences from TLP 15-1, working and spending time with NATO allies.
"It didn't matter what country we were from, if you were French, Greek, British, Italian or German; we all just hung out as one," Swarz said.
Swarz himself comes from a multicultural background. He was born in Italy and raised there until he was 12. He then moved to Portugal with his family and lived there until he decided to move to America and join the Air Force.
"Coming from different backgrounds, there are always different things we can bring," Swarz said. "That's what's so good about the Air Force. We get the best of everybody and just do what we do."