Any hopes Sgt. Michael Wolkeba had for a stress-free start to his summer vacation dissipated only a few hours after leaving base.
Smooth progress on a 730-mile road trip west from Fort Bliss, Texas, to San Diego last August stalled when Wolkeba and his wife approached a multi-vehicle collision on a sandy stretch of road cutting through the Arizona desert.
An RV had pummeled into the rear end of a semi-truck. Inching past the crash scene, Wolkeba’s wife noticed state troopers scrambling to enter the motorhome. With little thought, he pulled over, skipped through the congested traffic, and offered to help.
“Hey, I’m a combat medic at Fort Bliss,” he told the officers.
Moments later, wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and some Air Forces, he squeezed through the RV’s back window. Another paramedic followed. Through a jumble of broken glass and busted furniture Wolkeba spotted the victims, an elderly couple and their two dogs.
The truck’s container crunched the windshield and squeezed the passengers between the dashboard and their seats. The wife was in especially dire condition, her legs mangled and chest pressed by the wreckage. She spoke and screamed in breathless gasps.
Wolkeba and the paramedic took turns prying the debris from her body with a crowbar to give her air. He managed to fasten a tourniquet to one of her legs. Twice he used a manual suction pump to clear blood from her throat when she began to choke.
“It was adrenaline, and then fear if I can’t get this patient out,” he recounted during a Zoom call with Army Times. “But what I resorted to was just my training and what others would do in my position.”
Around two sweltering hours passed before firefighters managed to rip open an escape for the couple and escort them to a local hospital.
With his patients saved, Wolkeba returned the first aid gear, reunited with his wife, who’d been waiting nearby, and set off again for California.
Last week, the healthcare sergeant learned that the Army had selected him as the United Services Organization’s “Soldier of the Year” for his off-duty heroics.
Every year, the USO, a World War II-era non-profit offering support services and entertainment to troops and their families, honors a service member from each branch for “extraordinary acts of bravery [that] went above and beyond the call of duty.”
“They caught me by surprise,” Wolkeba, now in his third year of service, said of his selection. “I was very, very grateful for it.”
Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.