UI sergeant's humility shines in acceptance of medal
URBANA — Matt Ballinger asked his boss if he really had to attend a ceremony in Springfield this week to collect his medal of honor.
"That's just not my thing. It's pretty awkward," said the University of Illinois police sergeant who has been credited for saving eight people who were asleep in a burning home in Urbana more than two years ago.
A ninth person who was in the house and wasn't able to get out died later from burns.
Ballinger was one of 69 police officers from across Illinois to be honored Monday with the Law Enforcement Medal of Honor for exceptional bravery or heroism while on the job.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon joined Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau in handing out the awards.
Ballinger was joined by his wife, UI Police Chief Jeff Christensen and Assistant UI Police Chief Skip Frost.
Since the awards were bestowed for acts that occurred in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Ballinger was caught a bit off-guard when Christensen handed him a letter a few weeks ago informing him of the honor.
Former UI Police Chief Barbara O'Connor and Christensen both nominated him for it.
"He hates the spotlight," Christensen said of his younger colleague. "He's so unassuming about this."
True to form, Ballinger acknowledged that the medal, ribbon, plaque and the lovely box they came in are nice, but they are not what he will cherish most about that day.
"It's the satisfaction you get from the people you've helped," Ballinger said.
Ballinger said he had to resist the temptation to say to a couple of parents of the people he woke that it was no big deal.
"It is a big deal to them," he said.
"One of the girls from the fire still sends me letters telling me how she's doing. I keep those cards as a reminder to train hard and be prepared because you never know what you're going to run into," he said.
Ballinger, 37, was on his way to a METRO team raid about 4:20 a.m. May 28, 2010. He had left the UI Police Department on Springfield Avenue heading east to meet his teammates in Urbana when he noticed the front porch of the older two-story home at the northeast corner of Lincoln Avenue and Stoughton Street ablaze.
He called 911 and thought he'd wait for firefighters but realized the fire was spreading too fast to wait to warn anyone who might be inside.
He forced open a side door and, using a light on his gun, made his way through the smoke-filled home yelling out to wake up eight residents on three floors.
Ballinger, a former Army Ranger who has been with the UI police for eight years, did not find one of the residents.
Ashley Ames, 23, was sleeping in the room above the porch where firefighters believe improperly discarded smoking materials ignited an old couch.
Ms. Ames was critically burned and died at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield on July 6, 2010, a little more than five weeks after the house fire.
Urbana Fire Chief Mike Dilley called Ballinger a "great guy" who is "so deserving" of the high honor.
"He handled it with the humility and honor that you would expect out of somebody of his stature. Don't make any mistake about it. He saved a number of lives that day," Dilley said.
"We don't typically advocate running into burning buildings, but he had the training and knowledge. He did risk his life and just did get out of there in time," said the fire chief.
Ballinger said it was merely the right thing to do. Still, he was grateful for his years of training both in the Army and as a police officer.
"You develop the skill set of quick decision-making and what you would call instinctive-type stuff," he said.