FORT STEWART, Ga. – Retired U.S. Army veteran, Thomas Hamilton III, a public affairs representative with the Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division in the Europe and Africa Region, received a retroactive promotion to master sergeant in May 2023. Hamilton earned his promotion after being awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his heroic actions in the aftermath of a helicopter crash Aug. 30, 1988 in Central America.
“I didn’t do it for the medal or promotion,” said Hamilton. “Pulling my comrades from the crash site to safety was the right thing to do and what I was trained to do.”
In 2014, Lori Yerdon, the chief of the public affairs officer who Hamilton worked with, encouraged him to enter his name in a search engine during an online safety training exercise. He discovered a summary saying, "Spc. Thomas Hamilton III Soldier's Medal..." and clicked on it.
"I just stopped and stared," said Hamilton. "I found the general order had been issued in October of 1989."
After submitting his paperwork, Hamilton was later awarded the Soldier’s Medal by U.S. Military Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen at West Point, New York in 2016. The ceremony took place 27 years after Hamilton received the general orders for the Soldier's Medal from the Pentagon.
“I knew he was owed something,” said Jakub (Jake) Hautmann, Hamilton's son. “The medal didn’t feel like it was enough.”
In 2021, Jake asked his father if he should have received a promotion for the Soldier's Medal he had been awarded. Hamilton wasn’t sure, but sent in the paperwork necessary to find out. The review board responded in April of 2023 with congratulations to Hamilton for his promotion which was backdated to February of 2002.
“I was an E-7 for 11 years,” shared Hamilton. “I did everything I could to earn a promotion, from being in leadership positions to earning awards, and no one could tell me what I was doing wrong. Once that order came through, it was like a whole weight came off my shoulders.”
Hamilton stated that in the 1980s digital technology wasn’t advanced like it is today. He doesn't hold anyone at fault for his orders getting lost in the system.
“I don't blame anybody for it because I understand that things happen,” said Hamilton. “The important thing to me is that it's been rectified because as a Solider what basically validates your existence is your rank."
After serving in Desert Storm, Hamilton joined the 3rd Infantry Division during his time in Ansbach, Germany. He was stationed at Katterbach Army Airfield with 3rd ID for two months as an aviator.
“He's my idol and I’m proud to see that my dad was such an important person,” shared Jake. “It makes me think about joining the military to surpass and honor him. I want to make him as proud of me as I am of him.”
At the time of the helicopter incident, Hamilton was a UH-1 “Huey” mechanic and crew chief, assigned to the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment with the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador. During a return flight to Soto Cano Air Base in Comayagua, Honduras, the Huey crashed into a corn field with Hamilton, the pilot and co-pilot inside.
“Staring me in the face was a huge, flashing light on the dashboard of the Huey,” shared Hamilton. “I look back and tell the pilot that I see smoke. He did everything correctly but we came to a stop in the air and fell straight down.”
Hamilton described going into a crouch position and praying as the helicopter slammed onto the field, bounced, flipped and skidded across the ground with such force that the rotor snapped off along with the entire tail of the aircraft. After following protocols to prevent a fire, Hamilton then dragged the pilot and then co-pilot 50 yards from the crash site to a barbed wire fence.
“When our engine blew up, it was seen from the airfield,” said Hamilton. “By the time I got us over the fence, the medevac had landed.”
It was due to the extensive training that Hamilton and the crew received that prepared them to respond quickly in the emergency situation. The Army creates cohesive teams led by expert coaches that are ready to support Soldiers and prepare them to win on future battlefields. Leaders set the tone for these cohesive teams, cultivating a culture of care, pride, and ownership across the 3rd Infantry Division.
After the incident, Hamilton’s injuries became more prominent. The crash caused damage to his left hip, right foot, and he found out that a disc in his spine had compressed and disintegrated. He also now has a fully prosthetic right shoulder.
“The crash made me think about how important your friends and family are,” shared Hamilton. “Life is about being a good person and affecting those around you in a positive way.”
Every Soldier and leader has pledged to uphold the Army Values of leadership, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Hamilton's duty, selfless service and personal courage saved lives and made him a hero.