- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

Fairfax County police Officer Justin P. Palenscar until recently had little more than bite marks to show for his struggle to disarm a 6-foot, 200-pound former special operations agent.

Yesterday, Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce officials gave him and six county firefighters a more fitting reminder by awarding them medals of valor.

“I kept thinking I came back from Iraq unscathed [and] I didn’t expect to go out like this,” said Officer Palenscar, an ex-Marine who took away the suspect’s gun, then subdued him.

Officer Palenscar’s life-or-death ordeal began as a simple destruction-of-property call in which a woman said her ex-boyfriend had slashed her tires.

He dutifully took the report and left, only to hear 25 minutes later on his service radio that somebody was firing shots in the same spot.

Officer Palenscar returned to the scene to find a man walking near the victim’s car. A half-mile chase ensuedafter the suspect ignored Officer Palenscar’s command of “Don’t move — police.”

“Every time we ran around a corner, [the suspect] put his hands in his waistband, and I realized he was trying to pull out a weapon,” Officer Palenscar recalled.

He decided to tackle the suspect to gain control of his hands. But each time Officer Palenscar got close, the suspect bit his hands and arms.

“I was worried about if I would get out of this,” Officer Palenscar said. “I didn’t have any backup.”

An attempt to subdue the suspect with pepper spray also failed, so Officer Palenscar drew his gun. He was able to handcuff the suspect with the assistance of fellow officers and neighbors who had seen the struggle.

A loaded Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun and an 8-inch hunting knife were found near the suspect.

“He’d been stalking the woman,” Officer Palenscar said. “It was pretty obvious that he was planning to hurt her.”

The chamber awarded him the Silver Medal of Valor for his bravery and cited his “exposure to great personal risk” in the line of duty.

“The reason people become police officers and firefighters is for the satisfaction of helping people,” Officer Palenscar said.

Capt. Steven D. Clark and fireman Rudy Iturrino of the county’s Fire and Rescue Department were awarded bronze medals for a rescue operation in June in Pohick Bay.

“I’ve been in the fire department for 20 years, and I never thought I’d receive a medal,” said Capt. Clark. “I hope it shows that people who work for the fire department are genuine heroes.”

He and Mr. Iturrino saved a family of five in a sinking motorboat.

“The captain made the decision to get close to the boat to assess the situation,” Mr. Iturrino recalled yesterday. “I began to pull children off the boat.”

However, the rescuers had to form a human chain to get the mother, the father and a daughter into their boat.

Mr. Iturrino and several other recipients of the valor awards said they did what they were trained to do — and that co-workers would have done the same.

“Every day other firefighters are putting their lives on the line,” Mr. Iturrino said. “Just because they aren’t receiving an award doesn’t make them any less of a hero.”

The chamber annually awards five different valor awards, including a gold medal for an officer who dies in the line of duty.

“Thankfully, we haven’t had anyone [this year] die,” said Carrie Ann Blewitt, a chamber spokeswomen.

Recipients are chosen by a nine-member selection committee that reviews nominations submitted from each department. Each award had different requirements, ranging from unusual to extreme personal risk.

“I feel lucky and honored to be recognized,” said firefighter Ronald G. Bauserman, awarded a bonze medal for rescuing a women from her flooded car.

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