Story by Staff Sgt. Jordan Martin
A truck engulfed in flames, driver trapped inside. As each minute passed and the chances of survival diminished, the instinct and willingness of an Airman to act meant the difference between life and death.
For his heroic actions, Staff Sgt. Benjamin Anderson, an air freight journeyman assigned to the 137th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron, was awarded the Oklahoma Star of Valor in a ceremony March 7, 2020, at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma City.
On April 29, 2018, as Anderson drove across Oklahoma on Interstate Highway 40 toward Hinton, he witnessed a semitrailer lose control, crash into a concrete barrier and burst into flames. After alerting emergency responders, Anderson rushed in to check the condition of the driver.
“That day, there wasn’t a thought of stopping,” Anderson said of his initial reaction. “It was ‘I’ve got to stop and help this person out.’ Because it’s not the traumatic event itself, but it’s thinking about my family and friends who could’ve been in that truck or in crisis. I would expect anyone else to do the same.”
Anderson risked his own life even as the flames intensified – pulling the driver out of the burning vehicle and moving him to a safe location. Emergency responders arrived shortly after to find the driver badly burned, but alive and responsive.
After Anderson was checked for injuries, he headed back to class at Southwestern Oklahoma State University College of Pharmacy. It was an abrupt change to what had happened earlier, but he did not really consider the magnitude of his actions. For him, they were second nature.
Anderson attributes that instinct to act under pressure to his father.
“My dad is retired military and a retired fireman,” said Anderson. “He has always taught me and my brother to think proactively and not reactively.”
When the time came to accept his award, he chose to speak directly to his family in the audience.
“The actions that happened that day, I think, were a direct reflection of the values, character and humanitarian spirit that you instilled and nurtured within me,” said Anderson. “This award has my name on it, although it is as much yours as it is mine.”
Although Anderson does not see his actions as particularly heroic or deserving of credit, Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson, adjutant general for Oklahoma, clearly disagreed.
“In life, we are offered these defining moments to make a difference,” said Thompson. “In that moment, we can rise or we can wilt. In that moment, we can put our fears aside and rush into an environment, or we can be like everyone else and stand on the side … courage really isn’t acting in the absence of fear, it’s acting in the presence of fear.”
Anderson put his fear aside when it came time to speak during his award ceremony. Among the many high-ranking guests at the ceremony was U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. Anderson noticed and appreciated his presence.
“I was nervous because the three star is staring right at me; but, it meant a lot to me – being junior enlisted – to have that presence and support,” said Anderson.
During the ceremony Anderson also credited his time in the military for building his confidence and decision-making skills and believes that the Guardsmen he proudly serves with are just as capable and willing to do the same.
“I think anybody who has our training would have done the same thing,” said Anderson. “To me, I was in the right place at the right time.”
Looking back on that day, it’s clear Anderson acted beyond his own self-interest and put his own life before someone else’s. His decisive, confident and courageous actions that day not only saved a life, but exceeded the standard of what it means to be a citizen Airman.