The Air Force has awarded the highest non-combat valor award to an airman from Lakenheath, who rescued three French service members from an inferno when a Greek F-16 crashed into other aircraft that were being fueled and readied to fly.
Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz, of the 492nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit, has received the Airman's Medal for his bravery on Jan. 26 at Los Llanos air base in Spain, when he burned his hands pulling three of his French counterparts from the fire.
The Airman's Medal is one of the rarest of military awards that is known colloquially as "the non-combat Medal of Honor," said Doug Sterner, curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor and a renowned expert on military awards.
The medal recognizes airmen who risk their lives while not in action against an armed enemy, Sterner told Air Force Times. It can only be presented for heroism, not achievement.
"It's strictly a valor award," Sterner said. "The only thing that distinguishes it from the Silver Star is that the Silver Star is a valor award for combat. It is the fourth highest solely valor award."
The award is so rare that Sterner has only identified 259 Airman's Medals in the Hall of Valor, he said.
"I've not seen any estimates as to how many have been awarded, but my best guess is it's somewhere between 700 and 1,000 Air Medals, at the most, have been awarded in history," Sterner said.
Swarz has also received the Legion of Honor, France's highest military award, and the Crosses of Aeronautical Merit with Yellow Decoration from the Spanish government.
The French government recognized Swarz and four other airmen for helping French service members after the crash: Master Sgt. Jonathan McNeely, Staff Sgt. Eli Gordon, Staff Sgt. John Escalante and Senior Matthew Jeffers. They were also decorated by the Spanish government along with a sixth airman: Senior Airman Nevin Glendean Wolsleben.
The other airmen have received Commendation Medals from the Air Force, said 2nd Lt. Kellie Rizer, a spokeswoman for the 48th Fighter Wing.