Fire Watch: The Heroic Stories of the USO Service Members of the Year

FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailEmailEmailShare
USO Service Members of the Year
The 2022 USO Service Members of the Year: (top row, from left) Marine Cpl. Alec Cruz, Army Sgt. Erick Ceja and National Guard Spc. Solomon Doss; (bottom row, from left) Navy Seaman Ty Knight, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores and Space Force Sgt. Octavio Castruita. (Photos courtesy of USO)

Many Americans think of only one form of military heroism: the war hero. But there are many varieties of heroism -- yes, some that include acts of gallantry in combat, but others are performed by service members here at home.

At least, that’s what the United Service Organizations, or USO, has hoped to show over the last 20 years when it nominates its Service Members of the Year -- junior enlisted troops from all branches and components recognized for actions that go above and beyond.

Today, you’ll hear from those USO Service Members of the Year: a Patriot missile operator who resurrected U.S. use of the system for the first time in nearly two decades; a Marine who gave lifesaving CPR to an unconscious noncommissioned officer; a sailor who treated wounded civilians after a drive-by shooting; a Guardsman who rushed into a burning building to save a woman’s life; an airman who tackled a man attacking a pregnant woman; and a Coast Guardsman who breathed life into an infant after an overloaded boat capsized while crossing the Rio Grande River.

Main Topics

  • Drew F. Lawrence interviews six United Service Organizations Service Members of the Year 2022.
  • Rebecca Kheel, Drew F. Lawrence and freelance reporter Ben Fenwick discuss the Pentagon’s latest training of Ukrainian service members on the Patriot missile system as the country continues to wage war against its Russian aggressor.

Additional Resources

Listen, rate, and subscribe!

Spotify

Apple Podcasts

Google Podcasts

Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Sgt. Octavio Castruita

I put myself in danger. But I did that, because I expect somebody to do that for my wife or my daughter, if they're out in public and something like that would happen. So I can't stand by and watch something like that happen to somebody so.

Drew F. Lawrence

Many Americans only think of one form of military heroism: the War Hero. But, there are many varieties of heroism – ones that, yes, include acts of gallantry in combat – but others performed by service members here at home.

At least, that’s what the United Service Organization, or USO has hoped to show over the last 20 years when it nominates its Service Members of the Year – junior enlisted troops from all branches and components recognized for actions that go above and beyond.

Much ink has been spilled about the divide between civilians and the military. But what you are about to hear are stories that attempt to mend that divide, with many of these troops physically helping members of the civilian population.

Rescuing a suicidal motorist seconds away from jumping off a bridge, resuscitating a toddler after a fire, pulling drowing Marines from a sinking amphibious vehicle during a training exercise – and, combat heroism, though only one or two examples in each years’ cohort.

The USO likes to highlight acts of gallantry that occur stateside to show that junior troops are “a force for good in the world not only while on duty or in combat, but also in their everyday lives and in their communities.”

Today, you’ll here from those USO Service Members of the Year – a patriot missile operator who resurrected U.S. use of the system for the first time in nearly two decades, a Marine who gave life-saving CPR to an unconscious non-commissioned officer, a sailor who treated wounded civilians after a drive-by shooting, a Guardsman who rushed into a burning building to save a woman’s life, an Airman who tackled a man attacking a pregnant woman, and a Coast Guardsman who breathed life into an infant after an overloaded boat capsized while crossing the Rio Grande.

For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence – it is April 14th and this is Fire Watch.

Last month, seven service members representing every branch and nearly every component of the military embarked on a trip to Washington, D.C.. They visited the White House and Congress, and stayed in a hotel overlooking the national harbor, enjoying the views of the nation’s capital. One even took the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend.

But in the hotel, one playing generic music that often echoed through the lobby, they shared the reason why they were visiting in the first place. And it was because they acted heroically and generally, beyond their call of duty.

Seaman Ty Knight

Oh, yeah, definitely. Definitely. Yeah. For the action part was like another day at work. Yeah, that was nothing compared to proposing I could do that 1000 times over. Proposed again, that was that was crazy with the nerves.

Drew F. Lawrence

That's seaman Ty Knight the one who proposed to his girlfriend on the trip, and when he joined the Navy in the midst of COVID He never imagined he would have witnessed an act of shooting. Well, at least not stateside, let alone rush to the aid of the victims of it.

Seaman Ty Knight

I was off for the day. I went to optometry to get my eyes checked out, heard like three pops. It's like oh, fireworks, you know, innocent thinking -- went to my car opened the door and heard another couple of pops. I was like that's not fireworks that's gunshots. Like first instinct like, get to cover. So I jumped my car, I watch it transpire out of my back window -- it was probably about 200 feet behind me, maybe. There was an E-8, Navy E-8 Senior Chief and he was at the door like getting people inside like "get inside, get inside." And he kind of just like looked at me...military guys you know, get that look. And it's like the, "we're going like come on shipmate, we're doing this" so we ran over and started addressing the scene, the driver was unfortunately already deceased.

Drew F. Lawrence

Seaman Kight and another off duty service member ran into a bookstore where one of the victims was apparently bleeding out, severely injured.

Seaman Ty Knight

You know, kind of like the military training takes over right like you're not even thinking you're just doing. He had a GSW in his like lower below the elbow on his left arm and it's like higher upper abdomen like lower rib. So the the arm we just started threw a torniquet on it real quick or like quick, like stopped the bleeding good to go, the chest we like pulled up his shirt and made sure we didn't have a through and through what we're dealing with. Realize it was still lodged in his abdomen. So we were like, 'okay, man. We just have to apply pressure. That's all we can do for you." So we helped them apply pressure for him.

Drew F. Lawrence

Beyond telling his tale of gallantry, Knight aptly encompassed one of the reasons that the USO highlights stories like his.

Seaman Ty Knight

Norfolk, Virginia Beach has to be like 70% military. I mean, you have like, you have the NATO base, you have so many bases and for like us, it's, we want to show the people that are from there that like we do care. We're not just the guys with the boats that you know, come in, and take up waterways and things like that, like we care about the community too, we're part of the community. Yeah, we're only here for a short time or only like three or four years. But like when we are here, we do care what happens here.

Drew F. Lawrence

Most of the USO Service Members of the Year Fire Watch interviewed, like Knight, would have never imagined they’d have found themselves in the situation that earned them the honor.

Sgt. Octavio Castruita

I could have put myself in danger. But I did that because I expect somebody to do that for my wife or my daughter, if they're out in public and something like that were to happen. So I can't stand by and watch something like that happen to somebody.

Drew F. Lawrence

Sgt. Octavio Castruita, a Space System Operator, was named the USO Guardian of the year last year. And while he was getting life insurance policies together for his kiddos, he saw a woman – pregnant – cry out for help.

Sgt. Octavio Castruita

He threw something at her face: liquid in a cup. And I immediately went back to, you know, being in high school, there was a girl who was all over the news in San Antonio, that some stalker had thrown acid on her face. So my thoughts immediately went to that. And I immediately stood up and yelled at him and said, Hey, what, what the eff are you doing? I charged towards him, he turned around and started running outside.

Drew F. Lawrence

Castruita caught up with the visibly distraught man after a foot race that seemed to last forever.

Sgt. Octavio Castruita

I had seen it on Cops, you know, put your legs out, cross your legs. And so I did all that. It didn't hit yet. Like all that had happened until everybody was like, staring at me after I did that. And I was like, saw that on cops like, I don't know. After that, we just waited, the cops showed up, I think like another like 20-30 minutes after that. So but that time, I just sat there and waited, because I knew he'd probably run again. And then I didn't know what had happened to the lady because they took her to the manager's office. So immediately after the cops had arrived, she came out and thanked me and that's when I found out she was pregnant. And she was there for a funeral. And all her belongings were in the car and everything as well.

Drew F. Lawrence

What did she say to you?

Sgt. Octavio Castruita

She's told me thank you and, you know, expressed her gratitude that like, he would have taken all her stuff. You know, he could have caused her some harm.

Drew F. Lawrence

And like many, Castruita was humble in his story, even though the recognition was not lost on him and others.

Sgt. Octavio Castruita

We are trained with the mentality to do these types of acts without thinking. So I think that's the big importance of getting the message out there. And at first, I didn't feel like my story was something to be spoken about or anything like that. But definitely, now I see the bigger picture and hearing everybody else's story of the other members that are awarded here as well. Hearing theirs makes me feel better that there are people out there doing that and they are in the military, but soon, they'll be out, some of us will be out soon. And it's good to know that we will still be doing those types of acts and services. Out of the SMOYs, as the USO staff affectionately call the Service Members of the Year, two responded in a law enforcement capacity – physically aiding both fellow service members and civilians while in a uniform, and not just their military threads.

Spc. Solomon J. Doss

We had a call one night while I was at my civilian job, said that there was a fire at this one residence so we already responded. Through dispatch they told us that there was a person screaming help inside. Whenever I first walked in all you can see was just smoke like all this area was covered in smoke, towards like the upstairs area was flames. To the left of me was flames and then once the roof caved in, then flames shot down from up there too. I first located her, and then had to back out a little bit and then went right back in and grabbed her and as I was like pulling her back, the roof caved in and I got hit in the face with a bunch of smoke and flames and stuff. And then, so I had to back out there my partner went in, pulled her the rest of the way out to where I was able to go and grab her ankles and us carry her out of the house the rest of the way.

Drew F. Lawrence

Spc. Solomon Doss, who is indeed related to the legendary Desmond Doss who famously received the Medal of Honor as a conscientious objector medic during World War II continued his family’s legacy right at home in Piedmont, Alabama. When he rescued the woman out of the burning building, he brought her to the sidewalk and comforted her and made sure she was stable until EMS arrived.

Spc. Solomon J. Doss

I really still don't even think that anything was special about that day or anything. I just did what I had to do.

Drew F. Lawrence

Cpl. Alec Cruz, a Marine who rushed to save an unconscious non commissioned officer during a Marine Corps Birthday Celebration in Hawaii was also on duty as a military police officer.

Cpl. Alec Cruz

I was working the night shift, it was as soon as we got on shift, so it's probably about 6pm. And there was a military ball. We received a call over the radio for any available unit to go to the Clipper Golf Course, which is a golf course on base where they host events and there was a Marine there, surrounded by her friends. And they were like kind of holding her up. And I could see that she was you know, not fully like conscious, she was fading in and out of consciousness. And so I instructed her friends to you know, lay her down on the floor and kind of not gather around her and try to hold her up. They laid her down on the floor, and I was checking for a pulse. And she didn't have a pulse when I when I checked for it and I started chest compressions and CPR. And on the second set of chest compressions, she she came to didn't really know where she was at. And that's when the ambulance finally got there.

Drew F. Lawrence

His first thoughts after the ambulance picked up his fellow Marine went toward his wife, a common thread among SMOYs who often thought about their loved ones once the danger was over.

Cpl. Alec Cruz

You're supposed to call it over the radio that you've done CPR or you're doing CPR. And throughout that happening, I didn't even call her the radio or anything. So I first called...I called my wife actually first. And I was like, "Babe, I just had to do CPR." And she was kind of like freaking out.

Drew F. Lawrence

Why'd you call your wife?

Cpl. Alec Cruz

Well, that every time something like anything happens, it's always my wife and my mom that I call. Yeah, that's just my first instinct was to call my wife. ya know,

Drew F. Lawrence

And though the USO highlights stateside or off-mission acts of heroism, they also captured service members performing heroism on-duty. Erick Ceja was closest to what most Americans imagine combat to be like, though in an area many may not realize the Army is actively operating in. In January 2022, Ceja received word that ballistic missiles were about to strike Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

Sgt. Erick Ceja

My family was first thing that came into my mind. I had just had my daughter, she was I say, six months old. And I deployed 15 days after she was born. And then six months later, this happened.

Drew F. Lawrence

What was the second thing?

Sgt. Erick Ceja

Get things ready, you know?

Drew F. Lawrence

As a tactical ballistic missile screamed toward the base that housed 3,500 troops, Ceja rallied his Patriot Missile team for what would be the first counter missile launch the U.S. performed on that platform in 20 years.

Sgt. Erick Ceja

We knew each other like we were, were family there. So we knew what to do. So at the time, we separated and literally we read our minds, like, "I'll be doing this you'll be doing that. It was launched from Yemen. So we were up and ready and we fired seven, seven missiles from Al Dhafra. And they luckily hit the the TBM. It's a mix of emotions. I talked to my wife about it. She feels proud of what we did, because it's this is history for air defense. Like I said we haven't shot in 19, 19 years. My crew members out there we like together so all this that's happening, all this award, I would like to share with them as well.

Drew F. Lawrence

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores, a Response Boat Operator was also acting in his Coast Guard role when he rescued a group of nearly a dozen migrants, including a baby as they were attempting to cross the Rio Grande.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores

We were at an uncharted area on that river. And we got a call from Border Patrol. They have these blimps overhead so they can you know see out in the distance, so we got to call overhead that there was a raft crossing kind of close to us. So my coxswain you know jetted down the river to get to that point and it was still dark out. Low-vis. We get on scene we just see a bunch of splashing in a shadow of a boat upside down and going back to the Mexican side, the Mike side.

Drew F. Lawrence

His coxswain killed the engines to prevent anyone capsized in the water from getting hurt. And then Flores saw the unimaginable.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores

We threw what we could like boat hooks, lines, the life ring everything out there but it was it's almost like we arrived too late. So they were already underwater and I saw the one year old, unresponsive.

Drew F. Lawrence

Even though he was performing his duty as a Coast Guardman on a mission, it came with an added element he did not expect -- one that certainly made his rescue more difficult. Coyotes, also known as human smugglers were lerking on the shore. And often, he said, they are armed. With only seconds to react, Flores decided to break the rules.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores

They're the ones that try to get people across, they get paid, but they don't really care for the safety of the people. I was pissed at the time. But then once I saw the people in the water, then I just... I couldn't watch people drown and not do anything. It's against policy to jump in the water for people, you know, when you have other devices to bring them on board. But when its an unresponsive baby, there's no way to get them on board. I wasn't really worried about getting in trouble. But I was just trying to get them on board.

Drew F. Lawrence

In three minutes, Flores and his crew saved all nine people. And he gave successful CPR to the baby. They did all these things against the rules, against the clock. And against the odds.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores

I get a little emotional, yeah. I thought about my kids. I thought well, you know, because that little boy is like, he was really small. He was under one years old, but he is really small. And just I'm like dude, he didn't do anything to be in that position. So its just, at the time was like, you know, kind of looking at my noat crew and I can see the hurt in their eyes. So it's just like a quiet ride back.

Drew F. Lawrence

I asked Flores about the public's assumption about what we as a society believe a military heroes to be. Here's what he said,

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores

What I see and I'm not saying just my case, but what I see is strong individuals that are running towards something and not away from it. They're trying to make a difference and try to preserve life and help. And it takes a lot of courage to do that. You can't just you know, flip the switch and that's you like you've you know, it's you're molded and grown into that person.

Drew F. Lawrence

Stick around because up next is a reporter roundtable with my co-host Rebecca Kheel and freelance reporter Ben Fenwick to discuss US troops training Ukrainian Patriot missile perators.

Rebecca Kheel

Hi everyone my name is Rebecca Kheel, co-host of Fire Watch and congressional reporter for Military.com. Welcome to our reporter roundtable. Here’s what you may have missed since our last episode: Military.com released its second installment on our coverage of extremism in the military. This article focused on the growing threat of extremist groups and – while low in numbers – how veterans are getting sucked into the violence. A major leak of classified documents has left Pentagon and Department of Justice officials scrambling to find out who let loose intelligence that included secrets about the war in Ukraine and information on U.S. allies. The Pentagon is considering scaling back who and how many people receive information like this in the future, as more than a million Americans have top secret clearances. And finally, the U.S and Philippines are holding the largest combat drills in decades across the South China Sea, according to the Associated Press. The “shoulder to shoulder” exercise includes Patriot missile and Javelin testing, warship showcases and fighter jet drills – moves sure to invoke the ire of China. As always, joining me is my co-host Drew Lawrence. And with us today is Ben Fenwick, a reporter who wrote for Military.com after he got a first glimpse of what Ukrainian training in the U.S. looks like. Ben has covered military issues for decades, including a six-month embed in Afghanistan during the first years of that conflict – he’s written for the New York Times and has covered stories like the Oklahoma City Bombing. Welcome, thanks for being here.

Ben Fenwick

Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to this.

Drew F. Lawrence

Ben. Yeah, thank you so much for being here. And first, I just want to start out and ask you about what you saw at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, you know, the home of Army's artillery and air defenders, while US soldiers were training Ukrainians on these systems.

Ben Fenwick

Yeah, right. So we were called out there that day, and it was a cold, very windy day. And the plains in that area are kind of scrubby hilly plains. After a briefing, we were driven out to this site that was just totally devoid of anything, which is probably typical. We were gathered there with a few military officials who were senior officials who are advising us...people there from NATO, the general who's in charge of the...it's called the Fires Center of Excellence. And so then we saw this column of military vehicles up here over this hill. And they drove to the area where we were, and then began deploying this Patriot system. It's basically our, our basic missile defense system in the United States. It is designed, it was probably originally designed to shoot down incoming aircraft, but then they were able to augment it so they could shoot down missiles coming in. The Patriot missiles were, you know, they had to, they had inner Patriot launchers. But the boxy missile carriers were on him, at roughly, I would say, within a half an hour, they had the thing completely set up and running. And, and that's supposed to be really good time. They were wearing American military uniforms. So they looked like they were just Army soldiers, United States Army. And we were very cautious and very, pointedly not to talk to them. And they didn't approach us in any way. They looked like any other American military that knew exactly what they were doing. And so that's what I saw.

Rebecca Kheel

What was the importance of this training that you were able to witness, how does it fit in the overall war effort in Ukraine?

Ben Fenwick

There has been a lot of of course, as it's, as we famously seen, there's been a lot of air incursions by Russia and the Ukraine, and they've been attacking civilians and energy infrastructure, you know, energy generating areas and transmission lines and stuff like that. And it's, so it's very important for the defense of Ukraine that they have some ability to do that. And now they've been using their their native system, which is the old Soviet made S300 anti missile defense systems. And those are those kinds of missiles are very competent, but they don't necessarily...They're not modern. This is an upgrade to their defense system. But also this, this represents a very big step, because we are, this is this is us, ramping up our our engagement with Russia through Ukraine.

Drew F. Lawrence

This is kind of the first time that we've as the public since this war has started, that we've seen this training happening. But as you know, this isn't the first time that US forces have trained Ukrainian forces in the last decade.

Ben Fenwick

Right. Oh, that's right. Yeah. And in fact, it was one of the things that I thought was telling in this briefing that we got, you know, when I was standing there, I talked to the various trainers and sergeants, and you know, that there was, well, when I was in Afghanistan, and what's what happened was that we would train soldiers that had been trained in the Warsaw Pact, that they had to unlearn some tactics that we see for instance, the Russians using right now. And these these are, allow for really strong top down communication with hierarchy in the US and Russia or something like that. But on the battlefield, it's kludgy and unwieldy and they don't have good combined arms sort of strategy. Whereas in the West, we have we we train our, our officers, and for that matter, our noncommissioned officers, sergeants, and that to be able to react to emergent situations in the battlefield. And talking with the trainers. I said, have they had to unlearn some of this stuff. And they looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about. And, and then I've did some backgrounding, that they said, these guys not only knew what they were doing, they reacted very much in a manner that that was not in that they were able to train them in the western style really well, that not having to unlearn that to you.

Drew F. Lawrence

Is that an indicator that they're, you know, ahead, the Ukrainians are ahead in their training than you would have previously thought there would be in your experience in covering conflicts.

Ben Fenwick

Yes. And the fact that they didn't have to be had that done means they've already been there. They've already been trained that in fact, I went and looked it up. And we had had, dyou know, American military contractors or advisers or however you want to put it in Ukraine, all this time training these people and they've also the Ukrainians that is, and we've been training them also in countries, you know, Western countries. And this is this started before the Ukrainian war apparently.

Drew F. Lawrence

Ben I do want to ask about kind of the environment that this, I would say press blitz was put under because really we haven't had a lot of press access to us training Ukrainians, or even US troops being in NATO countries like Poland. You know, why do you think that is? And do you think this was a good first step in us, in us as the press being able to take a deeper look at what's going on? In these training scenarios?

Ben Fenwick

Yeah, yeah. And in fact, I've got to say that, you know, we're training people in Poland, right? Well, that involves the State Department, and the State Department. And once it becomes, it becomes problematic to allow access to military, that because those people are the ones that are over there now are also under the aegis of the State Department. And it becomes much more secret at that point. And Special Forces, famously, are usually the ones that train foreign militaries, for whatever tasks that they are that you know that they've worked out with us that they need. And so I was, I was eventually embedded with special forces in Afghanistan, and training Afghan National Army folks down on the border with Pakistan. And it was very touchy, and they would not let me down there for months, I was there for six months. And it was four months before I was given any kind of access like that, for this to be opened up. This was a good situation where press was allowed to witness us training Ukrainians, it's on American soil, it's under very controlled circumstances, they have a closed base, you go on that base, and they say, you're going to do it this way. And if you don't do it, that way, they'll gladly escort you off the base. So we were told do not talk to the Ukrainians. We were told no pictures. And that was that. And they gave pretty good reasons for it. They said, You may not think that there are foreign actors in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, outside that fence, but I promise you, they're there. And they will target these people. If you take a picture of them or something like that. They're gonna find their families. I mean, it's that kind of thing. And so I I took their I take their word on that sort of stuff, because I've worked with him over in Afghanistan, and I get it.

Rebecca Kheel

Well, thanks again, Ben, for joining us. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. Be sure to tune in next time.

Drew F. Lawrence

Thank you so much for listening to this special episode of Fire Watch. Thank you to our USO guests. Thanks also to my co-host, Rebecca Kheel and Ben Fenwick. Credit to executive producers Zachary Fryer-Biggs and Amy Bushatz. If you liked this episode and want to let us know, give us a rating – wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Story Continues