US Air Force Technical Sgt. Kenneth O’Brien has been hailed as a real-life Superman. He has rescued people from a burning car while serving as a member of the president’s security detail and was one of the divers who saved the team of soccer players from Thailand's Tham Luang Nang Non cave last year.
Twelve members of the soccer team, ranging in age from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach wandered into the cave on June 23 after football practice. Soon after, heavy rains flooded the cave, trapping the group inside. During the cave rescue, O’Brien was the furthest American inside the cave, according to the Air Force. He was the first rescuer to reach the children and told the Air Force that managing to get the last one out was "a big moment."
Born in Bunker Hill, Indiana, O'Brien left for basic training shortly after graduating high school. He said his dream was to jump out of planes and help people. Now, he is a special tactics section chief assigned to the 320th Special Tactics Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Japan.
Earlier this month, while on his way to receive a medal for his heroism, he intervened to save a choking baby on an airplane. O’Brien was on a flight with his family from Okinawa to Dallas when he observed that a one-year-old child had started to choke. After another passenger was unable to clear the blockage in the baby’s throat, the airman stepped in to perform CPR and back thrusts. Soon after, the baby regained consciousness.
O’Brien, who continued to check on the infant throughout the flight, has been humble about his efforts, saying, “I’m thankful that the child is ok and that I was able to help when the family needed support. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The Air Force sergeant has been one of twelve Airmen named the 2019 Outstanding Airmen of the Year. “I was shocked and never thought I would win,” said O’Brien. Despite, his apparent lack of self-awareness, he has been praised for his undeniable heroism. “I can’t decide if he’s Superman or Mayhem (the guy on the insurance commercials),” joked Lieutenant General Jim Slife in a Facebook post.
“I don’t know whether I want to be right next to him in case some bad stuff goes down, or whether I want to be as far away from him as possible because bad stuff always seems to go down around him,” Slife added teasingly.
Even though O’Brien has faced countless dangerous situations during his 12-year career in the Air Force, he says he’s more than happy to continue volunteering for treacherous assignments. “I want to keep doing this as long as I can or as long as my body can handle it,” he added. “Hopefully I can continue to do the big missions like this and continue to help people.”