Arlington, VA—Virgil “VJ” Smith’s hero is TV-superhero Static Shock. But for seventeen people and one dog, VJ is the hero.
On August 25, the middle schooler awoke to his cell phone ringing at 2 a.m. His friends in their apartment building, none of whom could swim, were trapped by rising flood waters. Without hesitation, VJ found a spare air mattress and embarked on what would become an hours-long rescue mission.
“I wasn’t scared at all,” VJ says. “I knew I had to go and help them. I didn’t want them to drown. My adrenaline just kicked in, and I did what I had to do.”
Soft-spoken and uncannily shy considering the media attention he’s garnered over the past seven months, VJ shrugs and looks down at his feet when asked what went through his mind during his daring rescue. “I guess I thought, ‘I gotta save these people.’ I didn’t think about alligators or nothing. I didn’t think about putting myself in danger,” he says. While his community may have changed irrevocably that night, VJ insists he feels the same; “I want to play basketball, go to school, and see my friends.”
On Friday, March 23, VJ received the Young Hero Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation for his courageous actions. Groggy from his first ever flight, the fourteen-year-old cracked a smile when asked if he was enjoying the accommodations. “We’ve been living in a hotel until a few weeks ago while everything got repaired.”
The Young Hero Award isn’t VJ’s first recognition. Site coordinator Eugene Lewis nominated VJ for the Communities In Schools of Galveston County Hardship to Hope Certificate of Recognition for his bravery. “I consider his actions in that situation nothing less than heroic,” Eugene says. “More so because he doesn’t consider himself a hero or his actions courageous. He saw friends and neighbors in need of help and did his best to help.”
This year, in memory of two CIS alumni who lost their lives attempting to rescue neighbors during the same hurricane, Communities In Schools will give the Tomas Carreon and Alonso Guillén Distinguished Service Award to a CIS alum who exemplifies the selfless bravery Tomas, Alonso, and VJ all personify.
When asked what advice he would give young people who want to make a difference in their communities, VJ said, “Just try. It’s all you can do.”