TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Driving along the back country roads north of Travis Air Force Base, Staff Sgt. Matthew Larson, 22nd Airlift Squadron loadmaster, was headed into work March 5 when something caught his eye.
Just ahead of him a pickup truck was pulled to the shoulder of the road. Smoke and flames smoldered in the bed of the truck as an older man tried to fan the flames with his sweatshirt. Leaving his vehicle door adjacent attempting to smother the fire, the gusting winds swept the flames from the vehicle’s bed to the cab, igniting the entire car.
“When I was getting out of my car, he was trying to put everything out,” Larson said. “Everything he owned was in the front of the truck and at that point there were 10-foot flames shooting out of the front end.”
Larson noticed the state of shock the man was in and grabbed him and pulled him away from the burning vehicle.
“He was in shock,” he said. “He didn’t realize what was going on.”
Larson pulled the man to safety away from the engulfed vehicle. They were able to flag down a passing motorcyclist and call 911.
While they waited, Larson tried to console the man and calm him down.
“I was more concerned with making sure this guy, who was in obvious shock, didn’t try to run back to the truck,” Larson said. “I gave him water and tried to comfort him ... tried to get him back to reality.”
That’s when he learned why the man so frantically tried to get back in the burning vehicle.
Just a year prior, the man lost his 21-year-old son in an accident. In the front seat of the truck was a booklet of his son’s drawings. He was an aspiring tattoo artist, and it was one of the only connections the man had left to remember his son.
“There were a couple times he wanted to jump back into the truck,” Larson said. “But I was able to calm him down and talk to him about his son ... to connect with him.”
Larson said every time he recalls that day, he gets emotional.
"Just because of the sheer fact that he didn’t have anybody there at that time ... he didn’t have anybody he could contact and it was like a lifeline was thrown out to me,” Larson said. “I felt like I was kind of chosen to be there to provide him that support.
“All the training and resiliency we are taught was actually applicable at that time,” he added. “You know, to get him back from the edge.”
The 13-year loadmaster said he didn’t really tell anybody about the incident at first. To him, he didn’t feel like it was something to be recognized for. It was just the right thing to do.
It wasn’t until an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent stationed at Travis wrote a note to Larson’s leadership. Special Agent Joshua Ciccotti witnessed Larson’s efforts to console and care for the man that day.
In his letter he wrote, “I never met SSgt Larson before yesterday, but I’m writing you to let you know that I am impressed with his character, poise, and gentle handling of a man who sorely needed comfort. It would have been easy to do nothing and not provide support or tend to a fellow human in need, but something tells me that this is not in SSgt Larson’s character. To be clear, Larson represented himself, his family, and your unit and the Air Force’s core values in true form.”