News: Spartan leader receives rare honor
Story by Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Smith
ELMDORF, Alaska - Sgt. 1st Class John L. Kerns, the civil affairs noncommissioned officer in charge for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, received the Soldier’s Medal during a ceremony held Nov. 21, 2013 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to individuals for heroism, who knowingly choose to place their lives in danger while not in direct encounter of an armed enemy.
Kerns earned the Soldier’s Medal for rescuing an incapacitated driver from a flame-engulfed vehicle in North Carolina in 2010.
During an off-duty trip to visit his grandfather, Kerns, who was then stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and his wife were traveling north on Interstate 95 when he saw a car about 100 meters in front of him veer off of the highway and crash into the wooded median.
Witnessing the crash, Kerns quickly pulled his car to the left side of the road. The traffic was heavy, and most of the cars in front of him had stopped to avoid a pile-up. He moved forward along the shoulder, passing cars until he stopped and exited his car. He ran to the crash site where several people had already arrived.
“I stopped the car, got out, ran up there, and the engine was still running,” said Kerns. “It was revved up high. The car was still in drive. The wheels were still turning.”
“It had slammed into the woods, and it was wedged in between two trees. The trees had scrunched that car together. The driver was incapacitated. It was not a pleasant sight,” Kerns said. “There was smoke and fire. I remember looking underneath the car and I could see the pine needles curling from the heat.”
“I yelled out at the people standing around the car, ‘Hey, we need to get this guy out of the car!’ It was met with just a blank stare. I looked around, and I saw a lot of that ‘deer in the headlight’ look. It was obvious these folks had not seen this kind of thing before.”
No one was ready to move, so Kerns leaped into action. Acting swiftly and without regard for his own safety, he entered the burning car from the passenger side rear door.
The only person in the car was the driver, and Kerns was thankful to find the toddler’s car seat in the rear vacant.
“The front doors were sandwiched in between those trees. There was a baby seat in the back, and fortunately there was no baby involved, but the driver was incapacitated and was convulsing.”
Kerns reached forward and shut off the engine’s ignition switch. He tried freeing the driver from his seatbelt, but because of the awkward angle and the belt’s tightness and pressure on the buckle, he was unable to unclick it. So, he reached for his knife and cut the belt to free the man.
He remembered seeing a Federal Express driver standing outside the vehicle’s driver’s side yelling at him about the ever increasing and raging fire. He could smell the unpleasant fumes. He could see the smoke and fire. There were other people on that side of the car too, so he forced open that side’s rear door. He began pulling the man back between the two front seats.
A woman reached in, grabbed the man, and started to pull. At that instant the fire consumed one of the car’s tires. The tire made a loud popping sound which frightened the woman. She let go of the man and ran away from the vehicle along with several other frightened onlookers.
Determined to rescue the victim, Kerns finished pulling the immobilized man out of the car by himself. He also grabbed the man’s cell phone along the way. The Fed-Ex driver came up and helped him move the victim further away from the vehicle, and within two minutes of extracting the driver, the vehicle’s fuel tank exploded.
At a safe distance away from the vehicle, Kerns began rendering first aid. He continued rendering aid until paramedics arrived at the scene to take the driver to the hospital.
Kerns distinguished himself through bravery and valor, but was modest as he spoke at his award ceremony.
“It is an honor to be considered for any military decoration, especially the Soldier’s Medal. It is especially humbling to be recognized by my brothers and sisters in arms.”
“I remember the events of that day very well. They stand out very clear in my mind. I remember seeing the accident. I remember stopping the car. I remember seeing the pine needles curling from the heat underneath the car as it became engulfed in flames. “
“I remember seeing the rise and fall of his chest. I remember feeling his breath of his air, the fundamentals of life saving.”
“But, what I don’t remember is weighing the odds. I don’t remember making any conscious decision.”
Kerns went on to say that any soldier would do the same if put in that position.
“We do these things because what we do in training ultimately is what we do in combat, and this is what the military has done for us, done for me.”
Kerns has had an exemplary Army career, which dates back to April 5, 1989 when he first enlisted into the active component. He then had a break in service after completing his initial enlistment in the mid ‘90s.
He re-entered the U.S. Army in the reserve component on Jan. 25, 2001. He went on to mobilize and deploy in support of contingency operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in 2002, 2003, and 2004.
In November of 2005, he transitioned back into the Regular Army, deploying in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom-Philippines.
In February, 2010 he was assigned to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.
In May of 2012 he reported to Alaska for his assignment in the 4-25th IBCT (ABN), where he deployed again in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The 4-25’s commander, Col. Mathew McFarlane, said Kerns is a talented leader who knows how to articulate his knowledge and experiences to help mentor soldiers.
“He is a special leader, and it was no surprise that when he saw this incident, that he took the actions he did,” said McFarlane.
The Spartan Brigade’s S4 noncommissioned officer in charge, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Coates, said Kerns has always been the type of person willing to help anyone in need.
“It’s not a surprise, honestly. Sgt. Kerns is always helping people and giving great advice. Every time I see Sgt. Kerns, he always has a mind frame of help others first, and get the job done,” said Coates.
“He’s the type of guy that would take his shirt off for you and say, ‘Hey, you can have my shirt.’ That’s just the type of guy he is.”
Coates said Kerns is a great role model for young soldiers to emulate.
“I think that by presenting him the Soldier’s Medal, it opens Soldiers’ eyes, so they can see that they can do good things in the community too,” said Coates. “He is a good guy. I’ve met many great people, but this is one guy I will never forget. I will keep in touch with him for the rest of my life.”
Chaplain (Maj.) James B. Lee, the 4-25’s chaplain echoed some of the same words during the ceremony’s invocation.
“As we honor his service today, and his act of heroism, we pray that we would be inspired to embody that same spirit as warriors, as soldiers, and as paratroopers.”
An interesting part of the story is Maj. Nathan Golden, the staff judge advocate for the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade at Fort Bragg, was traveling north on I-95 that day as well, and he too witnessed and aided in the rescue. Wielding a fire extinguisher, Golden helped keep the flames at bay until Kerns could extract the driver from the vehicle.
It was Golden who witnessed Kerns risk his life to save another person. It was this selfless act of bravery that prompted Golden to submit for the Soldier’s Medal award to honor Kerns’ courage and valor that day.
After the accident, Kerns called the hospital to check on the driver. He learned that he did survive, and that he was in stable condition and improving, and that was the last he heard of him.
“I was glad to hear he was doing well,” said Kerns.