By Sgt. Tracy Ellingsen
304th Sustainment Brigade
EL MONTE, Calif. - Sgt. James B. Bennett was presented the Soldier’s Medal for exceptional heroism during an awards ceremony at the El Monte, Calif., U.S. Army Reserve Center, Saturday, Sept. 8.
The Soldier’s Medal was awarded to Bennett for his actions in Fresno Jan. 28, when he and his father, James D. Bennett, saved the lives of two children by pulling them from a burning car.
Narration of the event read in part: “Sgt. Bennett and his father stopped to render aid when the vehicle containing the family burst into flames. Sgt. Bennett and his father without regard to their own safety began to struggle to release the two children from their car seats. Sgt. Bennett was able to unwrap the young girl from her seat belt and free her. He took the girl to safety and turned to the car so he could help his father try to free the boy. They were unable to release the seat belt holding the boy. After desperately trying, they were able to use a pocket knife to cut the belt and free the boy. They then tried to free the mother and father as the flames grew, but were unable to get them out....”
Unfortunately the parents were already killed on impact, but the two children, 1-year-old Saleena Lopez and 2-year-old-Paul Lopez were saved with no permanent injuries.
The Bennett family have remained an important part of the children’s lives since the accident, as made apparent during the ceremony by a crowd of the attending Lopez family and the two saved children who were never seen more than a few steps away.
"They asked us to be the godparents like within days of the incident," said Bennett.
He and his wife baptized and became godparents to Saleena. Bennett's father became the godfather of Paul Lopez.
Maria Lopez, the children's aunt, said Bennett and his family visit often, traveling five hours from Southern California to Central California where the children now live with their grandparents who are currently going through the process of adopting the toddlers.
Bennett shrugs off most of the attention insisting his reaction was the same anyone would have had.
"I think any soldier would react the same way," said Sgt. Bennett. “You never forget what you learn.”
"I was just on vacation wearing shorts and a basketball t-shirt," he said. "When we first stopped I didn't know what to expect."
Still, he knows that his actions, and that of his father, saved two lives that night.
"If we hadn't stopped, by the time the next car drove by it would have been too late, he said."
During the ceremony, Bennett was overwhelmed by the attention given him by the community, dignitaries, and his new unit, the 250th Transportation Company. This was Bennett's first day in the 250th and back in the Army Reserve after leaving active duty two months ago.
"All these people were here to see me? I did not expect that," said Bennett, highlighting his humble demeanor.
Bennett’s former commander, Col. Carolyn Birchfield, commander of the 402nd Field Artillery Brigade, headquartered in Fort Bliss, Texas, flew to California to present the award.
"I think it was incredibly important to be here in person,” said Birchfield. "The Soldier's Medal is a very rare thing."
The Soldier's Medal is only presented to individuals who distinguish themselves by heroism, not involving conflict or the enemy, but involving a personal hazard or danger and voluntarily putting their life at risk. It is given precedence above the Bronze Star and just below the Distinguished Flying Cross.
With tears in many of their eyes, the Lopez family stood side-by-side with Bennett and his family as the award was pinned on.
Maria Lopez, who was attending her first military ceremony, said she was thinking about her sister, the children’s mother, the entire time.
"Thanks to him, we still have the kids," she said.