Specialist Jose A. Ortiz-Fernandez of the 63rd Chemical Company, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was awarded the prestigious Soldier's Medal in the shadows of the 101st Airborne Division Headquarters Friday, October 29.
He was awarded Soldier's Medal for his unselfish act of valor June 19, 2009, when he witnessed a woman trying to take her own life by driving her car into the Cumberland River at the McGregor Park fishing ramp, in downtown Clarksville, Tenn., a town neighboring Fort Campbell.
With complete disregard for his own safety and putting his life at risk, Ortiz-Fernandez dove into the murky water, battling stiff currents to reach the fully submerged vehicle. He managed to free the woman, brought her to the surface and proceeded to swim with her, while she was unconscious, for more than 40-feet before reaching shore.
He then used his first aid training, performing several stomach pumps to help her clear the water from her system. He continued to stabilize the woman until the police and an ambulance arrived.
Acting senior commander Col. Dominic Caraccilo, who presented the award, said receiving a Soldier's Medal is quite rare, and stated that he had never personally awarded a Soldier's Medal in the past.
"Colin Powell also owns a Soldier's Medal that he got back during the Vietnam War. I would say that is rare company," said Caraccilo.
The Soldier's Medal is the highest honor a Soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation.
The Soldier's Medal sits two spots above a Purple Heart and one above the Bronze Star, just beneath the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A personal letter was also read at the ceremony from the Puerto Rican representative to Washington D.C., Pedro Pierluisi, lauding Ortiz-Fernandez's heroics. Pierluisi said in the letter, "I look forward to meeting you, whether in Washington, D.C. or back home in Puerto Rico."
To add meaning to the ceremony for Ortiz-Fernandez, his father, a Vietnam veteran, flew all the way from Puerto Rico to surprise his son.
Tearfully happy to see his father, who crept up beside his unsuspecting son just before the medal presentation, Ortiz-Fernandez immediately turned his attention back to the ceremony and stood tall while receiving his Soldier's Medal.
Ortiz-Fernandez's speech was brief.
"Thank you, thank you all for coming here today," he said.
In his chance to soak up a bit of local media attention, Ortiz-Fernandez declined to comment.
A comment wasn't necessary.
Ortiz-Fernandez spoke volumes in receiving his award in humility and his emotions toward his father, family and fellow Soldiers in the 63rd Chemical Company, who all greeted him with handshakes and hugs, one by one.