Maria Balderas' opinion of police officers has changed. "I used to always think of them as ones who stop you, give you tickets, pretty much that's it." Ryan Mills felt that way too. "We always think of them as only pulling us over and giving us a traffic violation."
The perception isn't unusual. The men and women behind the badges are employed only to hand out tickets. That is until that one moment, when you really need them. A moment Balderas and Mills remember well.
"He saved my life," said Balderas. "And thanks to him I have a different way of looking at life."
The officer behind the new way of thinking is Benton Keough. Keough looks like any other College Station police officer, but looks are deceiving. He's the first College Station officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor for Life Saving Events, twice. In the same year.
The first incident was a fire that had nearly engulfed a house on Oney Harvey in April, 2007. By the time Keough arrived, Mills and his neighbor Amanda Evans had awoke everyone and got them out of the house. "I could see that the whole roof was just covered in about two good feet of smoke," Mills recalls. "You could see the flames burning through the walls and windows."
But one resident panicked, because his dogs were still inside, and ran back into the burning structure. Keough and another officer, disregarding their own safety, were able to get him out.
When the terrified resident made a second attempt to reenter the home, Keough took no chances. "They had to physically hold him down and struggle with him," Mills remembers. "He would have gone back into the house and not come back out. So it was definitely a life saving event for him."
Just six months later, Keough would save another life. In October, Balderas was traveling down Texas Avenue when she slammed into the concrete base of an electrical pole. "I was going really fast, about 80 miles per hour," she said. "I guess I lost control of the car."
The accident triggered a fire in the car and an electrical short in the overhead wires. Dodging a cascade of sparks from the arching power lines, Keough and another officer pulled Balderas from the burning car.
Though she doesn't remember much, Balderas has heard the story many times and knows how lucky she is to still get to hold her daughter. "I could have been dead," Balderas said. "Everyday I got to wake up and thank God that he was there to save me. Because Mahaley would have been without a mother."
But Keough, who is just the seventh and eighth officer to receive the award, said he doesn't feel like a hero. "A lot of people around here throw around the word 'hero' because of that award," he said. "I know me and the other guys that have it don't really consider ourselves heroes. We're just out there doing a job."
Keough's sentiments aren't necessarily shared by a few residents who no longer see police officers as just ticket writers. "They're very brave and people don't realize, I think, how hard it is to do something like that," said Evans. Balderas added, "They risk their lives everyday for somebody. They don't even know us and they do it because they want to."
Keough received the honor in March, along with College Station officers Andrew Drake and Damian Anderson who assisted in the life saving events as well.