Michael Black had never worked on a live patient before.
A combat medic with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, he was trained to provide first aid and front-line trauma care on the battlefield. In 48 hours, he and his fellow soldiers would leave their base in Fort Bliss, Texas, and deploy for a nine-month tour in Afghanistan. Black never imagined he'd be using his lifesaving skills on the home front.
The scene before him was chaotic. A mangled car. A debris-filled highway. A panicked driver and a severely injured passenger.
Pinned and in pain, the woman had a cracked sternum, four cracked ribs and two broken legs. Her right thigh bone was protruding through her pant leg. Her femoral artery was severed. She needed to be transported to a hospital.
Michael Black needed to act quickly. The woman in his care desperately needed his help.
Emmanuel Molina and Linda Hartman were driving home on the cold and foggy morning of Jan. 5. The pair, who work as security guards at White Sands Missile Range near El Paso, Texas, had just finished their overnight shift.
As they headed south on State Highway 213, just north of the New Mexico - Texas border, they encountered a patch of ice.
The car, traveling at 60 m.p.h., veered off the highway, slammed into a guard rail and flipped six times. The passenger door ripped off and the vehicle crashed more than 20 feet from the road.
Molina tried to exit through the driver's side door, but it wouldn't budge. He checked on Hartman, who was sleeping at the time of the crash. She was alert, but seriously injured and pinned in the passenger seat.
Molina called 911. Despite her injuries, Hartman tried to stop Molina from panicking, "She's like 'You can't cry. You have to go find help,' so I would snap out of it. I would see her leg and just stay staring at it with guilt. I would start to lose it and she would grab my hand and say 'I'm not crying. You can't cry.' "
"I looked down, and I saw my femur broken through my pants, and then I saw blood," Hartman said.
Soldiers of Bravo Battery, 1-121st Field Artillery, Wisconsin Army National Guard, happened to be driving by the scene. Sergeant First Class Todd A. Richter, Specialist Michael C. Black and Specialist Joshua M. Aprill had just finished ammunitions guard duty when they encountered the accident.
"We were tired," Black said, noting that they had just come from 24-hour duty and had been awake all night. "When I think back to that night, it is all a blur," he said.
The soldiers could see no ambulances. No police. No first responders. Just a man - Molina - walking around outside the car and a woman - Hartman - pinned in the vehicle. She was bleeding profusely.
Black grabbed his medical bag. As gasoline pooled underneath the vehicle, he applied a tourniquet and was able to control the bleeding. With Richter's help, he stabilized Hartman's head and neck to prevent a cervical spine injury, and phoned in updates on the patient to emergency crews, who were 30 minutes away. Black and Richter continued to comfort Hartman to keep her from slipping further into shock, covering her with their fleece jackets to keep her warm.
Molina said he heard Hartman asking the soldiers if she was dying. "They did everything they could to keep her mind off of it," he said. "They asked her about her kids. They did an excellent job. I was amazed."
Aprill cleared the road of debris and directed traffic, ensuring easier access for emergency vehicles. When crews arrived, they freed Hartman from the vehicle and rushed her and Molina to a hospital.
"After we finished up at the scene," Richter said in disbelief, "Black told me that was his first live patient. I never would have guessed it in a million years with the way he handled himself and helped the victim."
Two days later, they deployed to Afghanistan.
Hartman's recovery is ongoing. Despite several surgeries, infections, painful skin grafts and the removal of her knee joint, she remains positive about her progress and says her situation could have been much worse had she not worn a seatbelt. "You never think it is going to happen to you until it happens to you," she said.
Amid tears, camera flashes and many, many hugs, Hartman had the chance to thank the men who saved her life face-to-face when they returned from Afghanistan a few weeks ago.
Black, from Brookfield, who was recently promoted to sergeant, is impressed with her recovery.
"It's fantastic to see how far she has come since the incident," he said. "Seeing where she started and the kind of trauma that she's suffered, it is amazing to see the spirit she has kept up through the entire ordeal."
Richter, from Sheboygan, and Aprill, from Kimberly, were awarded Army Commendation Medals for their involvement.
Black, a sophomore history major at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, has been recommended for the Soldier's Medal - the highest honor a soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation. He's expected to receive it in Chicago at the National Guard of the United States Convention in August 2014.
Molina said he and Hartman are extremely grateful the soldiers. "Had they not been there and helped us out the way they did, I don't think she would be with us," he said.