Servicemember Superheroes

By Mark Cantrell

In the face of chaos, it's human nature to get as far away as possible. That's why civilians consider it remarkable when servicemembers move toward a risky situation. But military personnel are trained to manage fear, assess potentially dangerous situations, and make rapid decisions on how to contain them. In time, that quick response almost becomes automatic, and it doesn't go away just because a servicemember is off duty. To hear them tell it, there are no heroes in the stories you're about to read. But, no matter where or when things go south, a war fighter can be a civilian's best friend.

Fire rescue

That was the case May 17, 2015, as Army Capt. Steve Voglezon headed out to do some shopping near Fort Bragg, N.C. Driving through a rural area in Chatham County, Voglezon came upon a horrific scene: An SUV driver had crossed the center line and run head-on into another car, and both cars were on fire. He ran to the SUV and, after making a quick assessment, pulled the driver out with the assistance of some passersby.

“As we were pulling him out, we saw that [the driver of the SUV] had an open fracture on his right ankle. I grabbed his torso and two others grabbed one leg, then the other leg, and we took him about 100 yards from the crash and the fire,” Voglezon recalls. He then applied a tourniquet to the victim's leg and ran over to the other car and helped a sheriff's deputy extract two other injured motorists.

“My training helped me to remain calm during this event and to process what needed to be done,” says Voglezon. “But it wasn't just me. Without the group effort, the story might have had a tragic ending.”

Military lifeguard

Sometimes the dangerous element isn't fire but water. In July 2013, Marine Corps Cpl. Brian Babineau decided to enjoy a weekend at Topsail Island, N.C., not far from his duty station at Camp Lejeune. As he and his friends were relaxing on the beach, they heard a scream. Someone shouted, “There's a girl drowning out there!” Without hesitation, Babineau sprinted into the ocean and swam out to the girl, who was thrashing around in a panic.

“I told her to relax and put [her] arms around my neck, and then with my left arm, I trapped her body against mine and started to swim back with her,” Babineau recalls. But the strong current began to push him farther away from the shore, and he had to rely on his training to calm down and focus on swimming against the tide. “It took me 10 to 15 minutes to get back to the beach,” he says. “When we reached land, she ran straight to her father.” Babineau received the Navy Commendation Medal for his actions.

Midair assist

A third element - air - came into play when Air Force Capt. Mark Gongol and his family were flying home from Des Moines, Iowa, after the holidays. The first sign of trouble came when Gongol heard the Boeing 737's engines power down to idle, which the B-1B bomber pilot knew wasn't normal. When a flight attendant asked whether any pilots were on board, Gongol reported to the flight deck, where he saw the captain, who looked pale and clammy.

The pilot had suffered a heart attack, and the relatively inexperienced first officer was showing signs of strain. “I had about five seconds to assess her: 'Was she panicking, or was she OK to fly the aircraft?'” Gongol recalls. Concluding the copilot was up to the task, he decided to act in a support role and set to work programming the autopilot, communicating with air traffic control, and monitoring the aircraft's critical systems.

After a successful emergency landing in Omaha, Neb., the first officer managed to make it to the gate despite never having taxied a 737 before - a feat that greatly impressed Gongol, who downplays his own role in the incident. “I saw nothing but the finest professionalism under pressure [from] the flight attendants, the nurses, and the first officer,” he says. “Everyone aboard the aircraft remained calm, and there is no doubt in my mind this contributed above all else to our successful outcome. In my opinion, any military pilot would have done the exact same thing I did.”

Situational awareness

When the threat is not elemental but human, military training can be helpful in aiding a servicemember to spot a potential problem - especially if that person has been deployed. Oregon Army National Guard member Spc. Jon Sweeney was returning from a computer programming class in downtown Portland, Ore., when a passerby set off his internal alarm. Deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan had taught Sweeney to pay attention to his instincts, so he turned and followed as the suspicious man approached a woman and a little girl outside a hotel.

Sweeney saw the man trying to snatch the girl from her stroller, and as the nanny screamed, he raced to the scene, wrested the girl from the abductor, and put himself between them. The guardmember then grabbed the attacker, who immediately tried to punch him. “Using combatives training, I avoided the swing and used his momentum to put him on the ground,” says Sweeney. “Once I got him on the ground, I had his hand locked with one [of my] hands and ahold of his airway with my other arm. From there, I was able to maintain control until the police arrived.”

Tackling terrorism

Perhaps the most well-known recent case of off-duty intervention happened on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015, as three longtime friends were enjoying a tour of Europe. Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, USAF, had fallen asleep when he and his buddies were jolted awake by the sound of screaming and breaking glass. A moment later, a man with an assault rifle and pistol entered their carriage. Stone, civilian pal Anthony Sadler, and Spc. Alek Skarlatos of the Oregon Army National Guard quickly ducked behind their seats. Skarlatos looked at Stone and said, “Let's go.”

With Stone in the lead, the three raced down the narrow passageway as the man raised his rifle to fire. But the gun jammed, and as Stone lunged toward the gunman, the man hit him in the face with the weapon. As the men struggled, the attacker began lashing out with a box cutter, slicing Stone's thumb to the bone, but the airman kept the assailant firmly pinned to the side of the cabin in a chokehold. When the man managed to reach his handgun, Skarlatos took it away, seized the assailant's rifle, and repeatedly smashed it into the man's head until he was unconscious.

As other passengers arrived to hold the man down, Stone saw that a passenger had been shot in the neck and was losing blood rapidly. Trained as a paramedic, he applied hand pressure to stop the bleeding, despite his own serious wounds.

Subsequently Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler received the French Legion of Honor - the highest French decoration for military and civil merits - for preventing what surely would have been a massacre, and Stone received a Purple Heart. While grateful for the awards, Stone, a MOAA member, maintains it was a team effort, saying, “If it wasn't for Alek [Skarlatos] and Anthony [Sadler], I would be dead. I wouldn't have been able to do it by myself.”