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Fort Drum soldier wins national USO award, recounts saving passengers from burning bus

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FORT DRUM — A week before he will be honored by the USO as the Army’s Soldier of the Year, a soldier from the post reflected on his efforts to save passengers in a burning bus that crashed near Waterloo in July 2011.

Perhaps more notable than the heroism he showed that day is the modesty with which he views his actions.

“I saw people in need of help, and it was my job as a soldier and my job as a human being just to help,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob J. Perkins, who will be honored in Washington, D.C., on Friday. “My only thought was to make sure everybody was OK.”

Staff Sgt. Perkins, of the C Troop of the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, is credited with pulling out 26 of the 52 people on the Canadian bus, which had been hit in its rear by a tractor-trailer at around 1:30 a.m. July 22 as it attempted to re-enter the road on Interstate 90 heading east.

Though about 30 people involved in the crash would sustain injuries, the only reported fatality was the tractor-trailer’s driver.

Sgt. Perkins, who had just gone on block leave and was heading home to Mountain Grove, Mo., saw the crash and resulting explosion while traveling in the opposite direction and immediately turned his car around.

One of the first to arrive at the scene, Sgt. Perkins, a forward observer for field artillery forces, said his years of Army training helped him stay calm as he entered the fiery bus. He had previously been deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

“The only thought was get them off, make sure they’re safe,” Sgt. Perkins said.

As police and fire crews arrived, he would step up again to help a family on the bus during the crash. Michelle and Sandy Blair were stranded as they saw their family member William Blair taken from the scene by a helicopter. Standing with police in the median at around 3 a.m., Sgt. Perkins saw the pair and offered them a ride to Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, where they were told he was being taken.

However, after driving for about an hour to the hospital, they were told Mr. Blair’s helicopter had been rerouted while in flight to Syracuse. Leaving Rochester at about 4 a.m., they arrived at Upstate Medical University about two-and-a-half hours later. Sgt. Perkins then stayed with the Blairs until about 9 a.m., when more of their family would arrive. After taking their phone number, Sgt. Perkins stayed in contact with them.

Attempts to reach Blair family members Friday were unsuccessful.

After staying up all night following the crash, Staff Sgt. Perkins remained in Syracuse for much of the following day as he filed a report of the crash then slept at a State Police barracks in the city. He noted that while he was sleeping, he missed a phone call from Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted to congratulate him for his actions during the crash. They spoke for a few minutes later that day.

A little more rested, he made the approximately 19-hour drive to his family’s home, about an hour away from Springfield. Staff Sgt. Perkins said he didn’t mention the incident to his family until he started receiving calls at his family’s home from insurance company investigators. At the police station in Syracuse, he had only told his mother he was going to be late coming home, and that he was tired.

Sgt. Perkins said he was surprised when he later began receiving calls from news outlets wanting to hear his story.

“I didn’t feel like I did anything to deserve the attention,” he said.

The attention wasn’t limited to television and print. The Army would award him the Soldier’s Medal, one of its highest noncombat honors, in December.

Sgt. Perkins will be one of a handful of service members honored at the USO gala Friday in Washington, D.C. He said he first heard about the Soldier of the Year award a few months ago, when the National USO office began calling his unit to ask for paperwork and an official photo.

“It’s pretty amazing really ... especially being able to be recognized by such a great organization,” he said. Sgt. Perkins said he looked forward to meeting honorees from other service branches.

Another soldier from the post who will be honored at the ceremony is Sgt. Richard F. Schuh Jr., who was named the USO Volunteer of the Year. This year is the first that Fort Drum has had soldiers win in the two Army award categories.

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