By Airman 1st Class Ben Liebing, 123rd Airlift Wing
/ Published June 12, 2021
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A special operations Airman in the Kentucky Air National Guard was awarded the Airman’s Medal in a ceremony here today for voluntarily risking his own life to save others while responding to a car crash near Louisville on the night of Nov. 16, 2018.
The Airman, Master Sgt. Daniel Keller, displayed the highest levels of heroic selflessness, said Brig. Gen. Hal Lamberton, adjutant general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, who presented the medal to Keller before an audience of more than 100 friends, family and coworkers at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base.
On that cold November night, Keller came upon a collision on a narrow bridge on his way home from work. Without delay, Keller jumped out of his truck and immediately assessed passengers in both automobiles. After helping a father and son get out of the first vehicle, Keller moved rapidly to the second to extract the visibly unconscious driver as the sport utility vehicle caught fire and began to fill with smoke.
Keller, a combat controller in the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, acted without hesitation, enlisting the help of bystanders to stop oncoming traffic, and formulated a plan for the rescue of the driver.
“With complete disregard for his own safety, he broke the rear window and entered the burning vehicle,” according to the award citation. Unable to see or breathe, he made his way to the driver while holding his breath, but the driver’s leg was trapped in the wreckage.
“I tried to squeeze in the back window and was going to drag him out over the seat and through the back,” Keller said. “But the way his foot was lodged under the steering wheel in the front, I couldn’t get him that way — and the smoke was really filling up the car, so I knew we had to try and get him out through the side or another way.”
With the help of a woman who witnessed the wreck, Keller executed a plan to squeeze in between the burning car and the bridge railing to successfully extract the driver through a window. As Keller moved the man to the other side of the crash site, away from the fire, he suddenly heard the woman call for help. He returned to the burning SUV to discover she had become stuck in the narrow space between the car and the bridge. With some maneuvering, Keller was able to pull the woman free from the wreckage as the vehicle continued to burn.
At that point, Keller and the woman began to perform CPR on the still-unconscious victim. Then Keller heard gunshots.
“I heard an explosion and thought, ‘That sounds like a gunshot,’” Keller recalled. “Then there were a few other bursts, and I knew there were rounds going off.”
He quickly realized that ammunition inside the vehicle had begun to “cookoff” — combust and explode — as the fire in the engine block grew. Keller successfully moved the woman and everyone on site to safe cover behind his truck, away from the flames and explosions. He then continued providing medical care until local emergency responders arrived on the scene.
“I am by no means a medical expert of any sort,” Keller said. “However, we do go through training in CPR, self-aid, and what we call Buddy Care, so I have at least the ability to stop bleeding and buy time.
“Maybe what translates most from our training to scenarios like this is the stress inoculation we go through,” Keller added. “We’re taught about the ‘Three Fs’ — Fight, Flight or Freeze. And we try to get our guys to the point where they’re always either going to fight or fly — because freezing isn’t ever going to do you any favors. And in this scenario, we fought.”
Lamberton praised Keller for his clear-headed thinking under such stressful circumstances.
“I think a lot of folks, when they’re confronted with a rapid change to their environment like that, have the tendency to want to get away from it,” Lamberton told the audience. “But Dan’s character and training is what enabled him to not only recognize what the situation is, but take the appropriate action to address it.”
Lamberton then pinned the Airman’s Medal — the Air Force’s highest honor for voluntary non-combat heroism — to Keller’s chest.
Special Tactics is the Air Force and Air National Guard's special operations force, leading personnel recovery, global access, precision-strike missions and battlefield medical care. As a combat controller, Keller is one of the most highly trained personnel in the U.S. military. Combat controllers regularly deploy undetected into hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense and humanitarian assistance.
The Airman’s Medal is Keller’s second high-level honor for heroism. In 2019, he was awarded the Air Force Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor — by the Air Force chief of staff for valor on the battlefield in Afghanistan.