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Fort Bragg Soldiers, Family Members Honored for 2014 Rescue

A sign at one of the entrances to Fort Bragg.

As flames licked the dashboard of the mangled 1998 Volvo, a woman sat pinned and barely breathing under the steering wheel.

Beside her, two soldiers did all they could to keep her alive.

With the car literally melting around them, Master Sgt. Jeffrey A. Gassaway and Spc. Benjamin I. Rogers tried their best, risking their own lives in the process.

They beat the flames away from 28-year-old Brittney Ann Stokes. When hot metal fell onto her, the soldiers — unprotected from the flames themselves — moved it aside.

Outside the car, Gassaway's wife, Sara, and Rogers' son, Isaac, fought back the flames, carrying water from a nearby pond and throwing dirt on leaking fuel.

Gassaway, a Fort Bragg military policeman, didn't know if Stokes could hear him, but he spoke to her, nonetheless.

"We're staying with you," he said. "We're not leaving. Stay with us."

On Friday, the four Army family members were honored for their heroic efforts on that day, Oct. 19, 2014.

Gassaway, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 503rd Military Police Battalion, 16th Military Police Brigade, and Rogers, assigned to D Company, 2nd Aviation Assault Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, were each awarded the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest award for valor outside of combat.

Sara Gassaway, an emergency room nurse at Womack Army Medical Center, was awarded a Commander's Award for Civilian Service. And Isaac Rogers, a rising eighth-grader, was presented the Fort Bragg Directorate of Emergency Services Youth Courage Award.

Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, presented the awards during a ceremony that also served as reunion for Gassaway, Rogers and the Stokes family.

Tragically, Brittney Stokes did not survive the wreck, Clarke said. But the soldiers and their family members were able to keep her alive a little longer.

"I know the family takes comfort in knowing that she was not alone," Clarke said. "The efforts to save her were nothing short of heroic."

After embracing the Stokes family, Gassaway and Rogers each said they were still haunted by the rescue attempt.

Gassaway said it was easy to see there was nothing they could have done to get Stokes free sooner.

Ultimately, she had to be cut from the wreckage by the Jaws of Life.

But as soldiers do, he said he and Rogers have repeatedly talked about what could have been.

"What could we have done better?" Gassaway asked himself again on Friday. "There's nothing we could have done."

Rogers said he often thinks about how he could have been better prepared. What tools would have helped him save Stokes? he asked.

"That day, we did absolutely everything," Rogers said. "We laid it all on the line."

The Gassaway and Rogers families had never met before Oct. 19, 2014.

On that day, both families were headed home, traveling in opposite directions on N.C. 27 near Sanford.

They met in the middle of a sharp turn, where the mangled wreck of Stokes' car sat folded and on fire against a tree.

Both vehicles stopped. The families rushed to action.

Sara Gassaway said she saw the flames before she saw the car.

As the family entered the curve, she said she turned to her husband and told him to stop.

"We have to help," she said.

By that time, Rogers was already at the car, trying desperately to open the doors as smoke filled the vehicle.

Gassaway joined him in those efforts as Sara focused on another problem, the growing flames.

Stokes needed to be freed, but as an emergency room nurse, Sara said the fire was her focus.

"The first rule of burns is to stop the burning," she said. "We had to get past that step first."

Finding a dirty pond across the road, Sara began carrying water back and forth.

She was soon joined by Isaac, who left the Rogers' family car to help. He emptied a tub of laundry detergent to help carry the water.

Armed with empty tubs, trash cans and "whatever else was in their cars," Sara said more than a dozen bystanders pitched in as her husband and Rogers continued to try to break into the vehicle.

At times, she thought the ad hoc effort was defeating the flames. But those successes were short lived.

"It would go all the way down, then build back up as if nothing happened," she said.

As Rogers desperately tried to pry a door open with a Gerber knife, Sara — now with singed hair and, like the others, covered in smoke and soot — reminded Gassaway that he had a handgun.

Shortly thereafter, with the help of a well-placed bullet, the two soldiers were inside the car and at Stokes' side.

Despite the danger, Gassaway said there was never a thought of stopping.

"If we didn't react, who was?" he asked. "We knew the danger, but that didn't stop us."

"I wasn't thinking about a thing," Gassaway added. "I was just acting."

The soldiers quickly realized they couldn't pull her from the car. So they braced themselves and waited for emergency personnel.

Gassaway and Rogers said they knew Stokes was alive and wanted to give her a fighting chance to stay that way.

"Even though we didn't know her, we were going to fight for her," Gassaway said. "I hope someone would do the same for me or my family."

Col. Eugenia Guilmartin, the commander of the 16th Military Police Brigade, said the two families "came together with no regard for their personal safety to uphold the core Army value of duty."

"Whether an Army kid, an Army spouse or an Army combat veteran, each demonstrated a deep seeded commitment to protecting the public, regardless of on duty or off," she said.

Clarke, meanwhile, said he was honored to recognize the heroics of "these two great soldiers" and "four great Americans."

"This is a big deal. This is an absolute big deal," Clarke said. "I can count on a single hand in 32 yeas of service how many times I've seen this award personally given. I've seen more Silver Stars. I've seen more Distinguished Flying Crosses."

Clarke said the two families "ran to the sound of the guns" and reacted with the same warrior ethos American soldiers show every day.

"We see it in combat operations. We see it here in our home stations. We see it on drop zones. And we see it in our community," he said. "We saw it in Sanford in 2014."

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