One stopped a church shooter, another tended to others during a mass shooting: Annual MOH tribute honors citizen heroes
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 24, 2018
ARLINGTON, VA. — Pop, pop, pop… the sound of gunfire rang out at the close of the Sunday church service. One person lay dead outside. Six others were wounded. As people around him ducked for cover, Robert Engle ran toward the masked gunman.
Members of the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn., where Engle was serving as an usher that morning, say he saved lives.
For his courageous actions on Sept. 24, 2017, Engle received a Citizen Honors award Friday at Joint Base Meyer-Henderson in Virginia, where more than two dozen Medal of Honor recipients gathered to present five awards. It was part of an annual ceremony in which the Congressional Medal of Honor Society recognizes civilians for acts of courage and selfless service.
Engle said he does not feel like a hero.
“I just reacted,” he said.
Engle said it was as if an invisible hand was pushing him forward. When he grabbed the attacker from behind, the gunman turned around and hit Engle in the head several times with a pistol. A life-and-death tussle ensued, in which Engle said the movements, in an inexplicable fashion, seemed to unfold “in slow motion but at a fast pace.” But more profound than that, he said, was the peace and calm he felt through the whole ordeal.
Engle said he remembers the gunman turning a weapon towards him. And just in the nick of time, he deflected the gun, turning it back upon the gunman as the weapon fired.
After a video presentation retelling the episode, the audience exploded in applause for Engle.
“It just feels like a dream,” Engle said of the recognition he received Friday. “Who knew that a small-town Tennessee boy would be up in Washington with all these Medal of Honor holders? Who would have thought?”
Three other individuals and one group were also honored Friday, following an annual National Medal of Honor Day wreath-laying ceremony involving the MOH recipients at adjacent Arlington National Cemetery.
Army veteran Matthew Cobos was honored for courageous acts he exhibited during a music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire, killing 58 and injuring at least 871 people.
Cobos, who left the military several months before the shooting, said he served nearly four years as a cavalry scout and “had never been so happy that I joined the Army… When the chaos happened in Vegas… definitely some training, some of the muscle memory from whatnot kicked in.”
When the first rounds of gunfire erupted, Cobos said, he ducked to the ground, pulling down a friend and others around him. A photographer nearby snapped a shot of Cobos shielding his friend with his body.
Cobos tried calling 911 to get medical personnel on the scene, but he said a couple of off-duty emergency medical technicians who were there told him “they’re not coming.” Meanwhile, he tended to people around him who had been shot.
After the episode, Cobos decided he wanted to become an EMT instead of pursuing a business degree in college. He said he’s “super excited” about becoming a first responder. “Usually when somebody calls 911 or anything like that, they’re having the worst days of their lives. And you’re the one that’s got to make it better and help them out.”
The appreciation she feels for military members who sacrifice so much to serve their country has led Kimberly Scofi to devote much of her time and energy to assist veterans and their families. Scofi, in turn, was presented a Citizens Award for the selfless service she offers.
As the director of the nonprofit organization United Military Care, Scofi works to strengthen military families and communities with emergency aid, education and empowerment through her organization.
For Scofi, “there is no greater sacrifice” than what military members make when they choose to be willing to die to protect the liberties American citizens enjoy. “We knew we wanted to build an organization that was responsive in a compassionate way to our veterans and their families who are often overlooked and set them on a course for success, not just hand out a bag of groceries. We really want to be there to help solve the problem.”
For its Young Hero Award, the MOH Society selected 13-year-old Virgil Smith for the heroism he exhibited when floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey swamped his neighborhood in Hitchcock, Texas.
It was pitch black outside when Virgil got a call from friends who were trapped by high water and couldn’t swim. Virgil decided to use an air mattress from his apartment to rescue his friends.
Virgil’s uncle, an Operation Desert Storm veteran, noted how much courage it took for a boy to repeatedly go out in flood waters with no lights at 2 a.m. Eventually, Virgil helped evacuate 17 people.
Veterans Heritage Project of Phoenix
For its Community Service Hero Award, the MOH Society selected the Veterans Heritage Project of Phoenix, which tasked middle- and high-school students to interview veterans and collect their war stories. As a result, thousands of veterans’ oral histories have been donated to the Library of Congress.