News you may have missed: real American heroes

A little over a year ago, an accident happened in southern Spain. In a way it was an ordinary accident, a flying mishap, a deadly crash. Eleven died, 21 were injured. Yet many survived, in a circumstance that demonstrated that American selflessness and heroism are alive and well.

A staff sergeant named Greggory Swarz, part of the ground force Air Maintenance unit of the 492nd wing of the U.S. Air Force, was temporarily stationed at Los Llanos Air Base in Albacete for a joint NATO exercise. The French defense ministry was conducting the busy NATO exercise when a Greek F-16 fighter, on take-off, suddenly veered sharply to the right and plunged to the ground within seconds, hitting parked aircraft and crews. Two hundred yards away, doing his maintenance job, Sgt. Swarz was one of the first to react.

What did he do? Instead of running away from the ensuing fireball and multiple explosions, he ran toward the inferno. How large were the flames? The explosions were heard 20 miles away, and there is video from 10 miles away showing the flames bursting upwards. Flames were shooting from planes, live rounds were whizzing by and fire bottles were exploding, but Swarz paid no heed. He saw people within the fireball standing and moving, and he ran to help.

His running toward the flames caused many other servicemen, of all nationalities, to change direction and follow him into the flames. He pulled three men out, others pulled more. Of the three he pulled to safety, two lived when they would surely not have. Capt. Olivia Mills, “Sgt. Swarz was the only one whose initial reaction was to run straight into the scene of the accident.” Others from his unit followed: Master Sgt. Jonathan McNeely, Staff Sgt. Eli Gordon, Staff Sgt. John Escalante and Senior Airman Matthew Jeffers.

Sgt. Swarz came away from the accident with burns to his hands but did not seek medical attention, seeing that others were more severely in need. Later that night, he went to an all-night pharmacy for some burn cream. True to his nature, he commented on his bravery, “I don’t think I did more than I had to do. I think I did what should have done. But I’m very happy that they’re alive, and I’m glad I was able to make a difference.”

In a French ceremony, all the U.S. airmen who went to rescue people out of the flames were given France’s National Defense Medal, and Sgt. Swarz was given the Legion d’Honneur. The Spanish Minister of Defense presented all the U.S. Airmen with the Spanish Cross of Aeronautical Merit. Last month his general, Frank Gorenc, presented Swarz with the Airman’s Medal. “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.” Back in the USA, Swarz just received the Laureate Award for Heroism.

Sgt. Swarz continues to check up on the people he rescued. Capt. Mills, “Sgt. Swarz is the ideal airman. Service before self is very important to him, and that is very evident. And excellence in everything he does is also important to Sgt. Swarz. We have come to expect that from him; every time, he delivers.” American excellence from every perspective.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.