Matthew B. Blain now stands amid a most select group whose members include statesmen and four-star general Colin Powell as well as rescuers who entered the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.
At a relative’s home in Laguna Beach last Saturday, former Army sergeant Blain was pinned with the Soldier’s Medal for heroism by one of the four commanders of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, who arrived from their post in Ft. Bragg, N.C., for the duty.
“This is my first in 27 years,” said Col. Brian Mennes, explaining to Blain’s friends and family that the medal is the nation’s highest honor a soldier can receive for valor in a non-combat situation. The award, established by an act of Congress in 1926, requires the same degree of heroism as that of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Blain’s act of heroism involved risking his own life to rescue four people from a river in Afghanistan swollen by a flash flood. The roadway beneath a convoy he was leading collapsed last February while on patrol during inclement weather. One vehicle slid off the riverbank and rolled into the rushing water, trapping three paratroopers inside and ejecting a cultural advisor through the turret.
Blain catapulted from his vehicle, ditched his gear and ran towards the submerged vehicle. Without knowing the depth or current of the water, he jumped in and first hauled the drowning cultural advisor to the riverbank. He then returned to the vehicle, pulling open the hatch and cutting straps that allowed the trapped soldiers to exit.
The unit had lost two other soldiers in non-combat water incidents earlier, Mennes said.
“I was so scared I had to do something,” Blain later told his father. “I just ran down the embankment and flew through the air.”
Mennes, addressing the group at the home of Gary and Cathy Daichendt, expressed his appreciation to Blain’s family for “volunteering their most precious possession. You let me lead guys like this,” he said.
Blain also received commendations from the mayors of Dana Point and Huntington Beach and a veterans group, each with ties to the family.
Blain admitted he didn’t even describe his exploits to his wife for two weeks because she was seven months pregnant. Discharged after six years of service in February, the 25-year-old recently relocated from Dana Point to Azusa to enroll in Azusa Pacific College. He enlisted after graduating from Laguna Niguel’s Aliso Niguel High School.
The award took on special significance for the soldier’s father, Brian Blain, of Dana Point. His own father, George, a disabled veteran, returned markedly changed by his military service, haunted by nightmares that he refused to talk about until his last years.
The award, “is a fitting end to what my father did in WW2,” Brian Blain said. “Matt completed the circle.”