A Brazilian-born U.S. Marine who came to this country as a child was awarded a medal for heroism Thursday for saving troops and civilians from a helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan last year.
"I don't see myself as a hero. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I happened to be the first person on the scene," said Gunnery Sgt. Geann Pereira, 33, to a gathering at Oakland Park City Hall after a general presented him with Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the ribbon and citation.
The place he was talking about was an office where was working at Camp Resolute Support in Kabul -- and the time was the afternoon of Oct. 11. A British Puma helicopter carrying multinational passengers as part of a NATO mission crashed as it came in for a landing. Pereira grabbed some gear, got there first.
Five people on board were killed, including two American airmen, two British troops and a French contractor. But Pereira crawled through the wreckage for hours, at times with fuel sloshing around, to pull people from the aircraft, both dead and alive.
"Instincts took over" the Marine told the small gathering, after a formal reading of the medal citation described him as using bolt cutters to cut his way through the wrecked airframe, and tunneling his way inside again and again. At one point, the citation said, he spent nearly an hour with one trapped, wounded passenger, "stabilizing him and trying to free him from the wreckage while the fire department attempted to cut through the skin of the helicopter."
Said Pereira: "I just happened to be the little guy inside the helicopter pulling people out... There were Marines, sailors, airmen, Army, coalition forces out there -- and we all came together with one common cause, just to save peoples lives that day. And everyone did a phenomenal job."
None of the survivors were at the ceremony. But Pereira said in an interview later that, after a Marine Times article reported about the decoration, an Air Force officer who was on board friended him on Facebook.
Pereira, who lives in Coral Springs, currently serves with a Fort Lauderdale unit that supervises Marines who guard U.S. embassies and consulates in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.
His boss, Lt. Col. Zachary Schmidt, called the medal ceremony -- which brought together Broward police, fellow office mates, family and civilians -- a celebration of a man who, "faced with the sights and sounds of people in trouble, ran to it."
His wife, mother, aunt, daughter and 6-month-old son were on hand for the occasion, as honored guests. And in his brief remarks Pereira described the Corps as family, too. "When people are in harm's way, when people are asking for help, we step up to the plate," he said. "That's what Marines do."
Marine Brig. Gen. Kevin Iiams, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces South, presided at the event, which presented Pereira with the blue, gold and red ribbon -- described as the highest noncombat decoration for heroism in the Marine Corps today.
Pereira displayed "character" on a "tragic day," the general said, something that most people "pray that we would have the courage to do."
The citation honored the gunnery sergeant's "bold leadership, wise judgment and selfless dedication to duty."
Afghanistan was Pereira's second overseas tour of duty for the Marine whose assignment is as an administrative specialist. His first was in Iraq in 2008. He came to the United States at age 10 in 1993, grew up on Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast, and enlisted eight years later.