Canton native wins bravery badge for life-saving rescue
Canton native Christopher J. Smilo didn't hesitate as rapidly rising floodwaters filled an Eagle Pass, Texas, house where an elderly couple struggled to keep their heads above water.
Smilo, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, jumped from a rescue boat, braved fast-moving, debris-filled water and swam to the house. He reassured the couple as he carried them, one by one, away from death's door to an awaiting airboat.
He takes it in stride.
"I was just kind of doing my job," Smilo said. "That's what I'm trained to do. That's what I'm supposed to do."
Smilo, a 2002 graduate of Canton High School who took his football skills on to Wayne State University, has received the Congressional Badge of Bravery for life-saving skills he used as a massive flood swept through Eagle Pass on June 15, 2013.
Officials from the U.S. Border Patrol's Del Rio sector announced Monday that Smilo and two other agents, James Barfield and Rolando Cantu, are among a select few to receive the latest Law Enforcement Congressional Badge of Bravery, created in 2008 to honor exceptional acts of bravery.
Smilo, 31, is a medic and canine handler who often confronts dangerous situations during search and rescue missions for the U.S. Border Patrol's BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Team), a special operations detachment. He studied criminal justice at Wayne State University and now works with 17 other agents in his Texas unit.
Cantu earned his badge for maneuvering the airboat, securing it to a telephone pole with exposed, live electrical wires and swimming to rescue a man from his house. Barfield, across town, rescued occupants from an apartment building as floodwaters quickly rose.
Smilo's father, David Smilo of Plymouth, said he is proud of his oldest of four children.
"He has always been a phenomenal young man," said his father, an assistant high school football coach for the Canton Chiefs. "I couldn't be prouder. He has a great deal of empathy. He puts himself in danger in many instances. He's an amazing young man. I couldn't be happier for him."
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, presented the special badges to Smilo, Barfield and Cantu on Saturday during a ceremony attended by Assistant U.S. Attorney Meghan McCalla and representatives for U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
Before his rescue of the elderly couple, Smilo's rescue team had seen a flashlight being waved inside the house, almost completely covered by water. Inside, the elderly people were desperate.
"They were in a bad place in that home," Smilo said.
He went on to rescue 16 more flood victims that same day, but he humbly said he only did his part among a larger team. Meanwhile, he will reach another milestone Memorial Day weekend, when he and his fianceé, Stephanie Van Tuyl, a woman he met while attending Wayne State, return to Michigan for their wedding.