FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 13, 2011) -- A 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldier who pulled passengers to safety from a burning tour bus July 22 on Interstate 90 was awarded the prestigious Soldier's Medal on Tuesday in Fort Drum's Multipurpose Auditorium.
Sgt. Jacob J. Perkins, 28, a forward observer with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, stood tall before the loud cheers and applause of his fellow Soldiers, his squadron, brigade and division command groups, New York State Police officials and a Canadian family he helped save from the fire.
"This is a momentous occasion," said Maj. Gen. Mark A. Milley, Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander. "If there were bullets flying and it was the Taliban, Sergeant Perkins would be getting the Medal of Honor.
"This medal is a big deal," he said. "It is only the second one in the last five years given out in the 10th Mountain Division and (the second in the history) of the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry (Regiment).
"This is in fact uncommon. (Perkins) chose to do something that most other normal human beings would not do. He ran into the back of a burning bus and saved people even though he stood a 50-50 shot of dying himself," Milley added.
Perkins was on leave after midnight July 21 when he began a 1,000 mile-plus trek to southern Missouri to celebrate his daughter Cadence's fifth birthday. While westbound on I-90 around 1:30 a.m., Perkins approached a fireball on the opposite side of the thruway, where a tractor-trailer had rear-ended a Canadian tour bus and buried itself halfway in.
Without any thoughts for his safety, Perkins pulled over, hopped the median and ran across several lanes of traffic toward the blaze. He was one of the first witnesses on the scene in the dark stretch of country between Syracuse and Buffalo.
Milley said Perkins' training and wisdom from wartime experiences immediately came to bear as the sergeant entered and re-entered the burning bus multiple times, braving the flames and intense heat as long as he could, checking every seat for survivors by hand, while also staying low enough to minimize smoke inhalation.
By the time the flames had become overwhelming, Perkins had contributed to the survival of five civilians and the safety of 24 others.
The driver of the tractor-trailer was killed on impact, and of the 53 people on board the bus, dozens were injured.
Both the rig and bus were torched in the accident and I-90 eastbound was shut down for hours.
Because not enough emergency vehicles were yet on hand to transport the injured passengers, Perkins offered to help.
A Canadian man, Willie Blair, whose severe injuries included a broken back, was the last survivor Perkins rescued from the bus. While he was airlifted from the scene, Perkins volunteered to take the man's stranded wife, Sandy, and daughter, Michelle, to a Rochester hospital some 45 miles away.
When the three arrived in Rochester, they were told Blair had been rerouted to a Syracuse hospital. Without hesitation, Perkins drove them the additional 90 miles and waited until other family members arrived later in the morning.
"I'm very grateful for what he did for me," Willie Blair said after the award ceremony. "I was very much out of it. Once he saved me, I was grateful for what he did for my family."
Sandy Blair said when her husband was taken away that night, she was very frightened and had not the slightest idea where she even was.
After arriving in Rochester and discovering her husband had been rerouted to Syracuse, she said Perkins, waiting in his truck outside of the hospital, told her "no problem."
"He said, 'I'm not leaving you, ma'am. I will take you,'" she recalled. "And he did. He stayed with us until we all were reunited. He wouldn't leave (my husband's) bedside until our family arrived."
"Sergeant Perkins was our hero that day," Michelle Blair said. "He treated us like family. He refused to leave our side. And even when (our family arrived), he tried to sneak away without even saying goodbye. "
"I said, 'Don't you dare leave until you at least say goodbye to us,'" she said. "He just wanted to do his duty and leave."
The Soldier's Medal is awarded to any person of the U.S. armed forces who, while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguishes himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy, according to Army Regulation 600-8-22.
The same degree of heroism is required for the award of the Soldier's Medal as is required for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross. The performance must have involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy.
The Soldier's Medal ranks just below the Distinguished Flying Cross and just above the Bronze Star Medal.
Receiving the award was a good experience, but Perkins said he does not feel any different from the any other Soldier.
"It was a real honor, but I still feel the same way I felt when I woke up this morning," Perkins said. "I don't feel like a hero. I was just doing what anyone else would've done in the same situation."
Originally from Mountain Grove, Mo., Perkins enlisted in the Army in February 2008. He deployed with 1-89 Cavalry to Iraq a year later and returned to Fort Drum in 2010.
Earlier this year, he was named to the Commandant's List upon graduating from the Warrior Leaders Course at Fort Drum.
Perkins has been hailed as a hero by federal, state and local officials. But the soft-spoken fire support NCO is described by many as a humble and unassuming man.
Milley pointed out that Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chief of staff of the Army, called Perkins the morning of the incident to congratulate him for a job well done.
"Sergeant Perkins makes us so proud. He didn't answer it," Milley said to laughter from the packed room of Soldiers. "He was tired. He needed to take a knee at that time of the morning. So he let it ring and he took a voice mail from the chief of staff of the Army.
"He's now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," the general said, turning to Perkins, "just in case you were wondering."
"But Sergeant Perkins is a humble guy," Milley added. "It's not about General Dempsey calling him or about General Milley pinning a medal on him. Humility, very self-effacing and very humble, is one of the trademarks and characteristics of a true hero."
The senior NCO at 1-89 Cavalry agreed.
"Sergeant Perkins embodies what all Soldiers should be," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Deblois, command sergeant major of 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment. "He embodies the Army values of personal courage. And I am (very) proud of him."