Hamilton plugged his own name into the search bar during the November 2014 lesson, an exercise that showed no revealing personal information. But when Lori Yerdon, chief of the public affairs office where Hamilton worked, suggested adding "U.S. Army" to the search, something very personal showed up: general orders from Army Headquarters from Oct. 30, 1989, showing Hamilton had received the Soldier's Medal for his actions in the aftermath of an Aug. 30, 1988, helicopter crash in Central America.
"In the description of the General Order [on the search page], it said, 'Specialist Thomas B. Hamilton III – dot, dot, dot – read more.' " Hamilton said Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy, where he runs the garrison public affairs office. "So I click on it, and I look at it, and the top portion has a listing of the medals they're presenting. … I went Control-F, put in my last name, and there it was, top of the third page.
"And I just stopped."
It took about a year for Hamilton to track down the award itself, but his co-workers at West Point weren't going to settle for a medal in an envelope: They arranged a full ceremony in the school's Thayer Award room, attended by about two dozen friends, family members and school staffers, including the superintendent.
Despite his public affairs service, the publicity wasn't his idea.
"I'm used to giving people recognition," Hamilton said. "I'm not used to having my story told."
He'd been notified of his award nomination while in the hospital after the UH-1H Iroquois he'd been in suffered catastrophic engine failure shortly after leaving Palmerola Airbase in Honduras. He was stationed in El Salvador with 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, providing U.S. Embassy support, and was returning to San Salvador when the Huey crashed and flipped over in a corn field.
Hamilton, serving as crew chief, shut off the aircraft's fuel flow, pulled the pilot and co-pilot out of the wreck, then returned to the helicopter to get the log books before allowing medics to airlift him from the scene.
"He does what all good crew chiefs do," said Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the academy superintendent, who presided over the ceremony. "They are calm, they are collected, they are knowledgeable, and in emergency situations, they know exactly what has to be done."
Hamilton credited his wife, Joanna, for pushing him to track down the award, and members of the USMA community for helping navigate the paperwork. He took over his post at West Point in July after working in Germany following his 2009 Army retirement; Joanna and the couple's three children flew in from Germany to attend the ceremony.
His parents flew in from Seattle: His mother, Kathi, recalled how she became aware of the incident decades ago.
"We have a son who is four years younger than he is, and I get this phone call and the voice says, 'This is Captain So-and-So' – I don't remember his name – 'and I'm calling about your son.' And I'm thinking it's a recruiter," she said.
"And he said, 'First, let me tell you he's OK.' And I went, 'OK …' And he said, 'He just went down in a helicopter crash in Honduras.' I said, 'He's not in Honduras, he's in El Salvador.' [The captain said,] 'Ma'am' – I'm sure rolling his eyes – 'Ma'am, he was in Honduras when his helicopter went down.' "
After the impromptu geography lesson, Kathi Hamilton had to relay the news to her husband and "totally lost it," she said. "I was crying."
The specialist called his mom about an hour later to tell her he was fine and heading back to the states shortly. A quarter-century later, he called to invite his parents to the award ceremony.
"We were thinking of surprising him," Kathi Hamilton said. "But we thought this was such a big deal, we should tell him we were coming. … Plus, we get to see the grandkids."