Despite imminent risk of fire or explosion, Marine Capt. Trey Kennedy raced through thick smoke and flying debris to help rescue four victims of a NATO helicopter crash in Afghanistan a year ago, an act that has earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism.
It's the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the two branches of military service.
Kennedy, a Clemson and Wren High School graduate, will be honored in a ceremony before Clemson’s rivalry game with South Carolina on Saturday and presented with the medal on the field during the game, according to the Marines.
The citation describes how Kennedy risked his life to save four others in the crash in Kabul on Oct. 11, 2015.
“Standing in several inches of jet fuel, Capt. Kennedy was able to reach through the window to remove a passenger’s seatbelt, then moved back inside to pull him out the passenger door,” it says. “He freed another passenger and handed her out of the helicopter, then discovered at least one more responsive passenger trapped in the wreckage.
“Recognizing it would be impossible to remove him, Capt. Kennedy went to the back of the aircraft and began cutting through the skin with a firefighting tool,” the citation says.
After firefighters arrived, Kennedy stayed to make sure their power lines didn’t come in contact with the fuel covering the area.
He then helped remove three other passengers before receiving medical attention himself.
“Capt. Kennedy’s bold leadership, wise judgment, and selfless dedication to duty reflected great credit upon him and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Kennedy said some of the credit belongs to other personnel involved in the rescue.
"This was an extremely tragic day, but also an outstanding display of how NATO forces from all over the world can respond to a crisis," he told The Greenville News. "I was far from the only person involved that day. The entire support of the rescue effort, made up of personnel from multiple nations, was incredibly successful.
"It didn’t matter what flag represented each passenger; there were nine humans inside the helo and we were all going to do what we could to save as many as possible."
Kennedy also credits the pilots with preventing the crash from being worse.
He recalls thinking that the downed chopper was likely to explode at any moment, but pressed ahead, imagining how he would feel if it was him who was trapped inside.
"When we were running up to the aircraft, there was debris everywhere. Smoke and fumes were dense in the air and I felt like it was only a matter of time before the leaking fuel was going to ignite," Kennedy recalled. "I can’t imagine what it would have felt like being trapped inside; I just remember thinking that if I were in that position, I’d hope someone would pull me out."
Kennedy downplayed the heroism of his actions.
“That's what Marines do,” he said. “No biggie.”
It was a pretty big deal to Col. Laurel "Buff" Burkel, one of the passengers Kennedy rescued.
She doesn't remember anything about what happened, other than that the helicopter struck a wire as it was making a landing in a short flight from Kabul International Airport to NATO headquarters in Afghanistan, where the British MK-2 Puma helicopter went down.
Five of the nine passengers — all of the ones on the righthand side of the craft — were killed. Burkel broke her neck but has made a complete recovery, she said.
She was able to meet Kennedy while she was recovering in Germany and he was on his way home from deployment.
“It was pretty powerful to meet the person who saved your life," she said.
She said he told her she would have done the same for him.
“We like to think we would take care of each other," she said.
“I’m really glad to hear that Trey is being recognized,” she said. “If it wasn’t a holiday weekend I would certainly have tried to come out.”
Burkel, an Air Force colonel now stationed at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis, was in Afghanistan overseeing training programs for the Afghan air force.
Kennedy was able to fill in some of the gaps in her memory of what happened, she said.
She was wedged into the crushed tail area of helicopter and couldn't get out on her own, Kennedy recalls.
"I asked her to grab onto the side of the window seal and lift her hips so that we could slide her out, and she did it just as I asked," he said. "I just supported her back and head and she pulled herself up perfectly.
"To know later on that she did that with a broken neck was incredible."
The doctors were baffled that she was still alive, he said.
"It’s a testament to how tough she is."
Kennedy will be honored in a 5 p.m. ceremony at the Clemson University Scroll of Honor, across from the Hill outside the east end of Memorial Stadium.
During a time out in the first quarter, the 2008 Clemson grad will be presented his medal, according to the Marines.