On a dry, cool evening nearing midnight Feb. 27, 2018, Capt. Travis Johnson was driving home from a night ops CH-47 training mission with his 82nd Airborne Division unit near Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Johnson stopped his car and rushed to the crash.
What happened next would earn this paratrooper the highest non-combat valor award that the Army awards – the Soldiers Medal.
Johnson received the honor in a ceremony at Fort Bragg on Wednesday. Accounts of the incident were gathered by Army Times from government documents, a press release and a brief interview with Johnson before the ceremony.
“I didn’t care or think about my safety,” said Johnson. “I did what any other 82nd paratrooper would’ve done.”
A man inside was trapped inside the car, banging on the window and screaming as the flames grew.
The paratrooper, who was a flight surgeon with 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at the time, grabbed his trauma shears and glass breaking tool and headed into the fire.
A woman driver stopped to help as he was approaching the car, Johnson told her to call for help as he tried to get into the car.
The back door was locked so he went to the windshield. The soldier couldn’t fully crack through the windshield with the breaking tool so he started kicking the windshield even as small explosions pushed him back.
Finally, his boot made a big enough hole in the windshield that he could reach through, protecting his arm with his uniform to grab the windshield and tear it free.
Johnson handed the shears to the man to cut his seatbelt and then hauled him out of the car and began first aid.
The car was engulfed in flames as police, fire and other emergency workers arrived. The driver was stable and able to walk.
Johnson walked away with some minor cuts and “melted car” on his uniform.
“You want to be prepared for any contingency,” Johnson said. “That is why I had all that stuff on me. The Army trained me that way.”
Maj. Gen. James Mingus, 82nd Airborne Division commander, highlighted the nature of what Johnson did that February night.
“He saved another man’s life at his own risk and expected nothing in return,” Mingus said. “He’s the definition of a hero.”
Johnson, a native of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is now a physician assistant assigned to the 60th Medical Detachment, North Carolina National Guard.
He served 14 years on active duty, four and half of those with the 82nd. He deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Johnson has previously received the Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal and a fourth award of the Army Commendation Medal, among other awards.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.