Air Force Commendation Medal received for heroism, but at a cost

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Paige Yenke
  • 926th Wing

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- “We all carry a story. A lot of people think it’s one big story, but you have so many different short ones in your life and not all of them are good,” said Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Willard.

Willard, a member of the 926th Security Forces Squadron, entered a different chapter of his own on the evening of October 1, 2017. The events of that night led to a civilian career change, as well an Air Force Commendation Medal for heroism, but not without psychological impact.

Willard was stopped at a traffic light on his way to the Tropicana Las Vegas for his civilian shift as a bellman and valet, when he began hearing what he thought were pops of fireworks.

After a moment of confusion, he quickly realized the severity of the situation when a flood of people from the Route 91 Harvest Festival started scattering onto Las Vegas Boulevard. He immediately put his car in park and jumped out to see how he could help.

It wasn’t long before Willard was approached by a group of four strangers, one of them wounded.

“The group of four approached the car and said ‘we got to get out of here, she’s injured, something is wrong with her neck,’ ” Willard said. “At this point, nobody knew it was gunfire. We just knew everybody was getting hurt at once. Nobody knew how.”

Willard helped slow the bleeding and transferred the injured woman to an ambulance they had spotted down the road. He then proceeded towards his original destination, thinking that may have been the extent of everything.

He soon realized this was not the case as more people fled. Willard parked his car at the Tropicana and ran towards the festival grounds with no hesitation.

“I headed that way against the sea that's coming at me and I'm just figuring, ‘well, maybe I can do something,’ ” Willard said.

That night a coworker joined Willard, along with two festival-goers, working through the night to pull injured civilians to safety.

The group hand-carried dozens of victims to the Tropicana and performed life-saving first aid while medical personnel set up a staging area to pick up and transport the wounded.

Seeing people band together is the only memory that Willard is thankful to take away from that night. However, some of the negative sights of survival instincts he witnessed have caused him to have trouble depending on others during times of stress.

“I think a week after Route 91 I was like, ‘Okay, it's time to talk to somebody.’ For me, it wasn't hard, it was very easy to be able to make a call,” he said.

Willard reached out to a chaplain he knew on base immediately for counseling, which he said helped greatly, along with the mentorship and support of his supervisor and wingmen in his unit.

Willard was fortunate to grow up with strong role models, where asking for help was encouraged. His father, a Purple Heart recipient who was in the Navy for 26 years, still receives counseling to this day.

“He showed me that it's okay to have somebody,” Willard said. “Who knows where he’d be if he didn't get the help he needed.”

As a security forces member, Willard is regularly exposed to others in their times of need and believes people should give the smaller chapters of their lives more attention.

“I think they wait for that traumatic event before they're like, I should fix all these problems I had before,” he said. “I think people need to reach out more through their lives and get the help they need.”

As the third anniversary of the Harvest Festival shooting nears, Willard recently received the Air Force Commendation Medal for heroism, submitted by his squadron.

“How they wrote that package was beautiful, I'm very humble and very accepting of it,” he said.

Now Willard is one of the leads of an Emergency Response Team for the MGM Resorts International, a position he was recruited for because of his Route 91 actions.

“After that night I had an immediate feeling that I can do more,” he said. “If there's something I can do where maybe I can make people feel at ease or I can make people feel a little more secure, I'm going to do it.”

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