Humble soldier saves 4, gets rare medal for heroism

Mail it, he said.

No, the Army said. We're coming out.

So last weekend, the 82nd Airborne Division sent a colonel and his entourage from Fort Bragg, N.C., to find Matt Blain.

And give him something rare.

"In my 27 years in uniform service, this is the first time I've seen this presentation," 4th Brigade Combat Team Col. Brian Mennes says. "That's how significant it is."

With that, the 82nd Airborne colonel explains his visit to a houseful of Blain's family and friends.

"It was almost like a movie," Mennes says, describing Blain's actions on Feb. 28, 2010, in the Guzara District of Afghanistan.

A 30,000-pound Army vehicle flipped into a river swollen with rain. One man was thrown out the gun turret. Three were trapped inside as water filled the cabin.

By the time Staff Sgt. Blain arrived, running full-tilt, other soldiers were scrambling down the embankment to try to help.

Not Blain. He leapt off the river bank, toward the black torrent.

Mid-air he began to wonder if that was such a good idea.

Purple Heart
Jumping into danger runs in the Blain family.

Blain's grandfather George Blain jumped into France the night before D-Day with the 101st Airborne "Pathfinders." He earned four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

"I wanted to be like him," says Blain, a fearless child who once skateboarded home 2 miles with a broken ankle.

Like his grandfather, Blain eventually became a paratrooper. And like his grandfather, Blain earned a Purple Heart.

On Nov. 2, 2007, he stepped on a landmine in Eastern Province of Ghazni, Afghanistan. He didn't weigh enough to trigger the explosive. But the Humvee behind him did.

"The Humvee blew up," says Blain, 25 and now a husband, dad and student at Azusa Pacific University. "I got thrown. I was dazed, then I came to and ran to the truck."

He pulled open the door and helped the injured men out.

He's learned a lot in his two deployments to Afghanistan. He witnessed abject poverty, with people living in mud huts. And he witnessed the fragility of life, with buddies dying from Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs.

"The stress level is there," he says about patrols. "You have to turn off your emotions when you're out there."

That's what he did when word crackled over the radio that a vehicle had flipped into the river. Blain sprinted to the scene, shedding gear as he ran. In the distance he saw the wheels of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored fighting vehicle — or MRAP — sticking out of the water.

Much closer, however, he saw the ejected passenger being washed downstream.


The rescue
"He was trying to swim, but he didn't know how," says Blain, who jumped in and pulled him to shore with a sergeant who ran up to help.

Blain then sprinted along the riverbank to the submerged MRAP — and dived in.

Mid-air, he started wondering about the current; the stability of a 15-ton truck lying on its side; and just how to grab its still-hot undercarriage to climb on top.

Inside, Capt. Jim Fallon, 26, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., had his own problems. Within a few seconds, black water filled the truck and, from underwater, he was unable to push the 500-pound door straight up to escape.

"I thought I was going to die," admits Fallon, one of three passengers trapped inside. "I thought I was never going to see my family again."

Suddenly, the door opened and a hand was pulling them out.

"He saved our lives," Fallon says. "He single-handedly lifted a 500-pound door by himself — not knowing if that truck was going to tip over."

Others soon arrived to help free the last passenger who had to be cut free from a restraint in back.

Because of his action, Blain has received attention that leaves him ... embarrassed.

"I'm not ungrateful," he says one day before the Army brass arrives. "But there were other guys there too. We were a team. Everyone performed exactly how they were supposed to."

Maybe that's why, when asked how he'd like to receive his medal, he said: Mail it.

No, the Army said. We're coming out.

The medal

That's how Matt Blain grew up in Mission Viejo.

At 10, he dragged home a 4-foot monitor lizard by the tail.

At 11, he cliff-jumped 25 feet into water.

At 12, he separated a shoulder and didn't tell his parents for two days.

"You know those situations where your heart starts pounding and your blood starts rushing?" says his brother David Blain, 27, of San Juan Capistrano, a lawyer. "He doesn't seem to experience that. He's never been afraid to risk his life."

Because of that, he saved four men's lives. And because of that, the Army sent a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, two sergeant majors and two captains out this week to present Blain with the Army's highest award for heroism not in combat.

"I'm grateful for what Matt represents," Col. Mennes says; "all that is good about Americans."

With that, he pins "The Soldier's Medal" for heroism on Blain's chest.

"It brings tears to my eyes," says Blain's wife, Megan, who was seven months pregnant at the time of the rescue.

The medal connects Blain to Gen. Colin Powell who received it in 1968 for rescuing his comrades in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. And to several soldiers who received it for rescues during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

"It's almost too much to take in," says Blain's mom, Suzzi Blain. "How can I be anything but so proud?"

As usual, her son is calm. The medal hasn't changed him.

Well, maybe in one way.

"Yeah," he says, reflecting on the man he admired growing up — his grandfather.

"I think I fall in his footsteps a little more now."

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