Far from combat, soldiers' fast response saves life, creates bond
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Combat medic Michael Black had never worked on a live patient when he saw blood pulsing from the severed femoral artery.
He was finishing training in New Mexico, just 48 hours away from deploying to Afghanistan — where, ironically, he treated nothing more serious than sprains and headaches.
But the quick action of Black, a sergeant, and two other Wisconsin National Guardsmen on a foggy road in New Mexico saved a life, and started an unlikely friendship.
It was a damp morning in January when Black, Spc. Joshua Aprill and Sgt. 1st Class Todd Richter were traveling from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to their base camp. Aprill and Black had been awake all night guarding ammunition.
Richter was driving the van and slowed when he saw debris in the middle of the road.
"As we approached, it looked like a bunch of equipment fell out of the back of a military vehicle," said Richter, 37, a Sheboygan County Sheriff's Department corrections officer. "But as we got closer, we saw it was multiple parts of a car."
Linda Hartman, 32, had just finished her overnight security guard shift at the missile base and was sleeping in the passenger seat as a co-worker drove her home. The driver struck a guard rail and the car rolled half a dozen times, ripping off the passenger door and severely injuring Hartman, a mother of two from Chaparral, N.M.
At first, the Wisconsin guardsmen thought it was a fender bender because the car didn't look too damaged and the driver was walking around. But when they saw Hartman they immediately realized she was in big trouble.
Hartman's legs were broken. The femur of her right leg stuck out, and the femoral artery was severed. She also suffered broken ribs and a broken sternum.
"It appeared at the time that she had cut an artery. It was coming out fast and it was coming out red," said Richter, who has served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Black ran back to the van to get his medical kit and quickly placed the tourniquet around her leg while Richter crawled into what was left of the back seat and immobilized Hartman's head. Aprill, 24, of Green Bay, cleaned the debris from the road and directed traffic until paramedics arrived.
"Luckily I had my small medical kit with me," said Black, 23, from Brookfield. "I only used the tourniquet on her right leg to stem the bleeding. That was really all we could do for her injuries, which were mostly internal."
Two days later, the three Wisconsin soldiers shipped out to Afghanistan with their unit, Plymouth-based Battery B, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery.
"We were kind of wondering: Is this a sign of more to come or is the worst over now?" Richter said.
Hartman has no doubt her life was saved by Black. Even as she was lying in a hospital, Hartman asked her husband to call Fort Bliss and find out the identity of the three soldiers. Later she made contact via email with Black and became Facebook friends during his nine-month deployment.
"I told him, 'you guys are my guardian angels,'" Hartman said in a phone interview this week.
Hartman took the time to find out from Black's girlfriend his favorite snacks and sent six care packages filled with sour candy, salt and vinegar flavored Pringles, beef jerky, cookies and hot sauce.
"He emailed me back and said, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know how you did it, but you seemed to pick everything I liked.' It was the least I could do," said Hartman.
Black, an Eagle Scout and 2009 Brookfield Central High School graduate, kept track of Hartman's surgeries and rehabilitation through Facebook from Afghanistan. Hartman has undergone numerous procedures and hospitalizations for skin grafts and staph infections. When doctors gave her the option of amputating her right leg below the knee or a knee fusion, she chose fusion.
Like all combat medics, Black had gone through 16 weeks of medical training. But until Hartman, he had never gotten to use his training on a live patient.
"Part of the training is controlling bleeding out of extremities. Fortunately it's something that's really hammered into us, to get the tourniquet on as quick as we can," said Black.
Meanwhile, Battery B operated a field artillery mission in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Bagram in Afghanistan.
"I didn't really have to do anything more than pass out Tylenol and fix sprains. It's surprising, but that's the way it worked out," said Black.
For their efforts, Aprill and Richter were awarded Army Commendation Medals. Black has been recommended for the Soldier's Medal, the highest honor a soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation.
Battery B returned to Fort Bliss earlier this month, and last week the three soldiers saw Hartman in an emotional meeting.
She wanted to thank the soldiers who saved her life. They wanted to see how she was doing.
In a way, they're all family now.
Hartman remembered Black's red hair and his eyes and she asked him questions about the accident after tearfully hugging the soldiers. When she's able to travel, she and her family plan to drive to Wisconsin to visit the soldiers and their families. If Black is awarded the Soldier's Medal, Hartman would like to attend the ceremony.
"Things can go wrong in Afghanistan," Hartman said. "He was always in my prayers that God would return him to his friends and family just like he did for me."