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The 2024 USO Service Members of the Year will be honored Thursday, April 11, 2024, at the organization’s gala at The Anthem in Washington. Top row from left: Army Sgt. Tanner Welch, Senior Airman Travis Spong and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Royston Pitt. Bottom row from left: Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Marzilli, Marine Corps Sgt. Brett Meil, Illinois Air National Guard Capt. James Horn and Space Force Master Sgt. Louis Perry Jr.

The 2024 USO Service Members of the Year will be honored Thursday, April 11, 2024, at the organization’s gala at The Anthem in Washington. Top row from left: Army Sgt. Tanner Welch, Senior Airman Travis Spong and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Royston Pitt. Bottom row from left: Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Marzilli, Marine Corps Sgt. Brett Meil, Illinois Air National Guard Capt. James Horn and Space Force Master Sgt. Louis Perry Jr. (Defense Department)

Army Sgt. Tanner Welch, USO’s 2024 Soldier of the Year, wasn’t thinking of recognition when he helped rescue two stranded hikers off a mountain in Alaska. In fact, he’d almost rather it not have gone public at all.

But his platoon leader with 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Airborne at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, “sent it up the chain, and it gained traction quick.” The Alaska native is one of seven service members from all branches of the military who will be honored as USO Service Members of the Year at the organization’s gala Thursday at The Anthem in Washington.

“I don’t want to say I’m embarrassed, but it’s a little awkward for me to be put in this position — but I am grateful,” Welch said. “But I guess … what would make me feel better about it is, all of this is thanks to God.”

This is the 21st year the USO has honored Service Members of the Year, who are nominated by their command leadership “for performing extraordinary acts of bravery that exemplify the values of the Armed Forces and the USO,” according to the organization. Service members are nominated from each service branch, including Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, National Guard and Coast Guard.

Alongside Welch, the USO will honor Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Royston Pitt of Brooklyn; Senior Airman Travis Spong of Lanark, Ill.; Space Force Master Sgt. Louis Perry Jr. of Clarksville, Tenn.; Illinois Air National Guard Capt. James Horn of O’Fallon, Mo.; Marine Corps Sgt. Brett Meil of Kerrville, Texas; and Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Marzilli of Tampa, Fla.

Steve Cannon, vice chairman of AMB Sports and Entertainment in Atlanta, Army veteran and member of the USO Global Advisory Council, will receive the USO Merit Award at the gala.

“The Service Members of the Year have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to protecting and serving others, from rescuing survivors of the Maui wildfires to shielding a student from a live grenade during a training exercise,” USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II said in a USO news release announcing the awards. “Steve Cannon, a West Point graduate, has led efforts to make the Atlanta Falcons’ military outreach the benchmark in the NFL, including spearheading the first NFL team-directed USO Tour.”

Army Sergeant Tanner Welch, right, participates in a medical field training exercise outside of Fort Polk, La., in this undated photo.

Army Sergeant Tanner Welch, right, participates in a medical field training exercise outside of Fort Polk, La., in this undated photo. (Jamerson Nava/U.S. Army)

A ‘very tearful, very emotional’ rescue

Along with serving with 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Airborne, Welch, 24, had also joined his local search-and-rescue team in 2021, which was how he got the call in August about a man and woman who were lost while hiking on Charlie Dome mountain at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. He put in a four-day pass with his command, which was approved the same day; by the next day he was in Chena Hot Springs. The two hikers had been missing for three days.

“While we were clearing our area, finishing up, the call came out over radio that two passerby hikers had run into a random guy at the time, and so they brought him to … the incident command,” Welch said. “… We booked it back, I got there, checked him out, made sure he wasn’t suffering too bad from exposure because they’d been out there for a few days and were not properly equipped. They were equipped for an afternoon walk, not even a hike, I would say, for Alaska.”

This was indeed the man who was lost, who had left the woman to try to find some help before they both froze to death, Welch said. Welch questioned him about the whereabouts of the woman. After the man recovered a bit, he, Welch and a K9 team went back out in a state trooper all-terrain rescue vehicle up to the mountaintop. A state trooper helicopter followed them.

With the now recovered hiker’s help, the team searched for the woman as they descended the mountain. But due to the man’s disorientation, they struggled for some time with what to do — until Welch heard a faint female voice.

“She obviously didn’t see the helicopter because she’s I believe legally blind, but she must have heard the helicopter and started calling out to it or screaming for it,” Welch said. “I caught wind of it — the wind carried it up the mountain, thankfully to us, and I heard it. I got everyone’s attention, and we waited to see if it would happen again, and it did, and so we started safely running down the mountain toward where we heard it, stopping every so often when we couldn’t hear it anymore to do our callouts.”

They found her in a ravine near a body of water. “She was a lot worse off than the gentleman was, but not terrible compared to other patients I’ve had,” Welch said.

The team worked to warm her up, relighting a fire the lost hikers had been able to start a couple of days into their ordeal. Once she was warmed, rehydrated and fed, the team brought her back up the mountain to the waiting ATV. After a joyful reunion, the hikers rode back down in the vehicle and were handed off to local emergency medical services.

“I was very excited to hear her voice, and then [the hikers’] reunion — it made me miss my wife,” Welch said. “It was very tearful and very emotional, and I’m glad they were able to be together in a safe environment, and not out there cold [and] miserable.”

Senior Airman Travis Spong loads a truck preparing to dispatch mail to the airport at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in this undated photo.

Senior Airman Travis Spong loads a truck preparing to dispatch mail to the airport at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in this undated photo. (Leon Redfern/U.S. Air Force)

‘It kind of felt like a movie’

Airman of the Year Spong, 23, is currently stationed at Misawa Air Base in Japan but was working as a postal clerk at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on April 30 when he witnessed an off-base motor vehicle accident. He was on his way to the airport at the time with a driver and his coworker, and their truck had just merged onto the highway in “busier traffic than normal” when a car on the opposite side of the road hit a rail guard and flipped onto their side of the road.

“As soon as the car hit our side of the road, [the driver] was ejected from his vehicle and he flew across the road, and we stopped the truck,” Spong said. “He was laying on the ground, his leg was ripped off his body. And at first I thought he was dead, but when I went up to him, he was moving his head a little bit.”

As heavy traffic continued to flow around them, Spong took his belt off and used it as a tourniquet to stanch the man’s bleeding. The man, in his late 20s or early 30s according to Spong, didn’t speak English, but Spong tried to keep him calm as he contacted Qatari emergency services. “They came, and they applied their tourniquet, gave me my belt back and then they drove him away,” Spong said.

“It kind of felt like a movie where I saw the car in the air, and you kind of think, it doesn’t look real, because the car was literally in the air flipping. And I’m like, there’s no way,” Spong added. “... As soon as it hit and the guy flew out, then it was like, this guy’s obviously hurt; I need to do something. It just came natural at that point — I don’t know if it was from the training or just natural instincts. I just saw what needed to happen and that’s what I did.”

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Royston Pitt works as a machinist mate at the Navy Medical Training and Support Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Royston Pitt works as a machinist mate at the Navy Medical Training and Support Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. (U.S. Navy)

‘I needed to do my job’

Sailor of the Year Pitt, 27, works as a machinist mate at the Navy Medical Training and Support Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He had just finished work late in the day on Sept. 22 when one of the student watch standers approached him about another student who had entered the facility with a package that “might have contained shell casings.”

Pitt checked the Personnel Accountability System-Common Access Card (PASCAC) system to try to see who had entered the building but was unable to track down the suspect. He then ordered the building locked down and contacted the chief duty master-at-arms and the 502nd Security Forces. He went back to the student watch stander and asked if he remembered the subject’s name, but the watch stander only had a set of initials.

From those initials, Pitt narrowed his search to three sailors who lived in the barracks. He, the master-at-arms and another staff member went to check the rooms. In the second room they checked they found the sailor and the package containing parts and shell casings for an assault rifle and were able to apprehend him.

“He was kind of reluctant, but he cooperated,” Pitt said. “He was kind of distraught, but overall he did cooperate pretty decently.

“You do GMTs [general military training] in the military, and you do constant training, yearly training about situations like this — with active shooters and whatnot,” he continued. “But it was different when the situation actually arose, because it’s like, this is the real deal, you know? I knew that I couldn’t sit here and second-guess myself and be nervous, things of that nature. I needed to do my job.”

Service saves lives

The other USO Service Members of the Year distinguished themselves with similar acts of selflessness.

Space Force Master Sgt. Louis Perry Jr.: Perry saved the lives of four of his fellow service members who began to experience heat strokes during a combat skills training exercise.

Illinois Air National Guard Capt. James Horn: During the 2023 New Year’s holiday, Horn was assisting victims in a serious car accident when another vehicle collided with the wreckage, propelling him over the car’s hood. Despite suffering injuries himself, he continued to render aid.

Marine Corps Sgt. Brett Meil: A combat instructor at the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton in California, Meil saved the life of a student who accidentally activated a grenade during a live-fire range exercise — sustaining shrapnel wounds across his body.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Marzilli: Marzilli, a boatswain’s mate with the Coast Guard, rescued multiple people in and around Lahaina Harbor during the August wildfires.

Visit https://www.uso.org/stories/3733-meet-the-2024-uso-service-members-of-the-year for more information on their stories.

Brian McElhiney is reporter for Stars and Stripes based in Okinawa, Japan. He has worked as a music reporter and editor for publications in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Oregon. One of his earliest journalistic inspirations came from reading Stars and Stripes as a kid growing up in Okinawa.

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