HURLBURT FIELD — In his 30 years in the military, Col. Tom Palenske had never seen anyone receive the prestigious Airman’s Medal, the highest medal awarded to a member of the Air Force who distinguishes himself by a heroic act outside of combat.
However, on Friday morning Palenske, the commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, presented the medal to one of his own: Senior Airman Justin Barabash of the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron.
“I want to start off by saying what a big deal this is,” Palenske told the crowd gathered for the event. “As far as I’m concerned, this medal is as prestigious as the Medal of Honor for an act that is performed outside of combat.”
Barabash’s heroics began on what started out as a typical evening.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, have a routine. Every night when Justin gets off work as an air traffic controller, he gives Elizabeth a call before making the long drive to their home north of Crestview.
“I set a timer, and if he’s not home by a certain time, I start to worry,” Elizabeth said.
On Aug. 20, 2014, she had a lot to worry about.
Justin left the base shortly after midnight and was driving on Martin Luther King Boulevard when he came upon a car that had run through a telephone pole and was partially in a ditch. In the middle of their nightly call, Justin told Elizabeth, “Gotta go!” and hung up.
“He had a little bit of panic in his voice,” said Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Leah, at the time. “I kept trying to call him back, but there was no answer.”
Barabash had tossed his phone aside after noticing what he called "little drops of flames" coming from the vehicle.
“The airbags had deployed, so I couldn’t tell if there was anyone inside or not,” he said.
After calling 911, Barabash flagged down passing car. He and the other driver began trying to break the car’s windows using reflector poles they had pulled from the roadside.
“Have you ever tried to break open a car window?” Palenske asked during the ceremony. “It’s a lot harder than it looks on TV.”
Once they managed to open a window, plumes of black smoke began to pour from the vehicle.
“At that point, Airman Barabash pulled out his pocket knife,” Palenske said. “He's from Texas, so of course he carried a pocket knife. He began to cut away the air bags so he could see if anyone was inside.”
Barabash found a semi-conscious woman in the driver’s seat, her legs pinned under the steering wheel. Flames from the front of the vehicle were approaching as he climbed into the burning car and cut away the woman’s seat belt. He had to climb even further into the car in order to free her legs from the steering wheel.
After carrying the woman up a ditch and placing her on the ground, he returned to the vehicle to see if anyone was still inside. After ensuring that no one else was in danger, he returned to the woman and stayed with her until emergency responders arrived.
The fire chief on scene told Barabash he had saved the woman’s life.
“He said if I hadn’t been there, she would have died,” Barabash said. “He told me it was a miracle I wasn’t killed, because there were live power lines on the ground all around the car. I didn’t even realize that at the time.”
Barabash’s mother, Elaine Byrd, said she isn’t surprised that he risked his life for a stranger.
“When Justin was a little boy, my husband always stopped to help people who were in distress on the side of the road,” Byrd said. “That was just ingrained in Justin.”
Like most service members, Barabash downplayed his role in the event.
“My co-workers keep throwing around that word I hate — hero,” he said. “I don’t think I did anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done. I was just following the Golden Rule.”