Two first-year U.S. Military Academy cadets earned Army Commendation Medals last month for their response to a car wreck the day after the Army-Navy game, but their response to a simple question from the driver of one of the cars made their actions just a bit sweeter.

Jim Clifford's Chevy Silverado had been rammed by a car that was coming off the highway near Baltimore on Dec. 14. The hit to the driver's side, near the gas tank, sent the Silverado into a roll; Clifford escaped by kicking out the windshield, but his wife, Marie, couldn't get out — her hand had become stuck in the door during the rollover, and she was hanging from her passenger seat as the Chevy rested on its side.

Clifford recalled yelling for aid and getting little response from onlookers until "all of a sudden, these two young men came running up and said, 'How can I help you?' "

James Michael Vogel, a plebe from Columbus, Indiana, had just taken in his first Army-Navy game and was driving with fellow plebe Liam Lynch when they saw the wrecked SUV. After pulling over to assist, Vogel leaped on top of the car to open the door and free Marie Clifford. Lynch and Jim Clifford then pulled her to safety.

The SUV of West Point grad Jim Clifford rests on its side after a wreck in Maryland on Dec. 14, the day after the Army-Navy game. Clifford and his wife were helped at the scene by two West Point freshmen. (Courtesy of Jim Clifford)
The SUV of West Point grad Jim Clifford rests on its side after a wreck in Maryland on Dec. 14, the day after the Army-Navy game. Clifford and his wife were helped at the scene by two West Point freshmen. (Courtesy of Jim Clifford)

The SUV of West Point grad Jim Clifford rests on its side after a wreck in Maryland on Dec. 14, the day after the Army-Navy game. Clifford and his wife were helped at the scene by two West Point freshmen.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jim Clifford

Clifford, a 1980 West Point grad who left service as a captain, eventually came to a realization: The young men were military. Lynch, of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Vogel confirmed as much, but then came the important question:

"Army or Navy?" Clifford remembered asking. "And I'm hoping they're not saying Navy."

They didn't. Clifford eventually found out the men attended the same school as his son John, who will graduate West Point this year and become a fourth-generation infantryman.

"While talking to them, we found out the husband was an Old Grad and they were the parents of a current firstie," said Vogel, who along with Lynch were made available to answer questions via email by West Point public affairs. "We stayed until emergency vehicles arrived around five minutes later. Once the situation was in good hands, we got back in our car and headed on our way."

Jim Clifford was being looked at by emergency medical personnel when the cadets left — he and his wife were spared from life-threatening injury, and the men in the other car got into a cab and left after the wreck, he said.

He fired off a letter to West Point superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, which read in part: "Thank you and the Academy Staff for doing a great job inspiring our future leaders of character. These two young men definitely have it."

Shortly after returning from winter break, they would be rewarded for it. Both Lynch and Vogel received their medals Jan. 16, presented by brigade tactical officer Col. Stephen Merkel and signed by Brig. Gen. John Thomson III, commandant of cadets.

"Without hesitation, they ran ... they were willing to help," Clifford said. "The fact that they're plebes ... they've already got something in them that's going to bode well for the Army in the future.

"I've already ordered my son — ordered him — I said, 'You make sure they have a pizza any time they want.' "