MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- When the Amtrak 501 passenger train jumped its tracks and fell onto Interstate 5 just south of Dupont, Wash., on Dec. 18, 2017, three of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's medical officers and one civilian nurse, all off duty at the time, utterly disregarded their own personal safety to mobilize their skills to aid the train's passengers.
Two of those rescuers have received awards; the last two were recognized in a ceremony that brought out three generals, a congressman, a secretary of state and a mayor. The Soldier's Medal given to honor those heroic actions deserves such attention.
In Letterman Auditorium at Madigan Army Medical Center, Maj. Gen. Dennis LeMaster, commanding general of Regional Health Command-Pacific was joined by his senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Clark Charpentier, in presenting the Soldier's Medal to Lt. Col. Christopher Sloan, the former Madigan deputy commander for administration who is entering retirement, and Maj. Michael Livingston, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, in a ceremony on Aug. 26.
"This is a very important day, a very significant form of recognition which our Army gives our Soldiers," said LeMaster. "Only 270 Soldiers currently on active duty have the Soldier's Medal on their uniform."
The Soldier's Medal is the highest honor a Soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation. Its justification must be at least equal to that which would garner a Distinguished Flying Cross, had the act occurred in combat. The recipient must have risked their own life, not merely saved another.
"It's a very rigorous process to get this award," noted LeMaster. "I've got to recognize Brig. Gen. (Michael) Place for birddogging this for a number of years now to make sure that these two Soldiers got appropriately recognized with this award."
Place, Madigan's commander at the time of the derailment, was seated in the front row along with Rep. Denny Heck, of Washington's 10th Congressional District which includes the base, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Dupont Mayor Mike Courts, and the garrison command team, Col. Skye Duncan and Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Marble. Also in attendance were family and friends of both awardees and visiting dignitaries as well as retired Lt. Gen. William Harrison, a former commander of I Corps and after retirement, the first mayor of the city of Lakewood.
The ceremony also served as a reunion of rescuers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., as Tanya Porter, a registered nurse at Madigan and 1st Lt. Robert McCoy, a medical officer with the 62nd Medical Brigade, were also in attendance and recognized on stage after the presentation of medals to Sloan and Livingston. Last year, Porter was recognized with the Secretary of the Army Award for Valor and McCoy was presented with the Soldier's Medal, both by then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark Esper, who is now the Secretary of Defense.
The acknowledgement of selfless service to others these awards represent, and the words of LeMaster in presenting them to Sloan and Livingston, recognize the actions of all four of JBLM's rescuers in the face of personal danger.
"Instinct and extraordinary courage had everything to do with the selfless actions of Lt. Col. Sloan and Maj. Livingston on the 18th of December. While disregarding their own personal safety, their military training kicked in and they risked their lives to save the lives of people who they did not know," said LeMaster prior to presenting their awards.
On that mild December morning, traffic came to a standstill on I-5 in Dupont, Wash. This is far from unprecedented; yet, the reason on this day was rare indeed. That morning, the Amtrak Cascades 501 passenger train was heading northbound on its inaugural run on a new express line. When it came to the bend in the track just beyond the overpass between Nisqually and Mounts Road, its speed was excessive and it derailed.
Thousands of Northwesterners traveling that stretch of roadway saw quite a sight when they came upon the train with some of its cars dangling off the overpass. For most, it was a rubbernecking situation that turned into a nightmare commute. For the serendipitous rescuers, it was clearly time for action.
Porter established a casualty collection point and started assessing victims; risking her own life moving victims from under the dangling train car even after emergency responders arrived and told her to stop. Lives were at risk, and she instinctively aided them however possible.
McCoy, a platoon leader, was on the scene and crawling through the unstable wreckage looking to aid victims almost as soon as the crash occurred.
Climbing first onto a tractor trailer that was disabled in the crash and then into a dangling railcar, Sloan and Livingston found McCoy helping victims get out safely. Working in tandem, they were able to get people out of the car who were not able to depart on their own. Some were pinned under seats, luggage and broken parts of the car; others had sustained injuries that compromised their mobility.
"The brave actions taken," noted LeMaster, "will not be forgotten, not by them, not by the people they cared for and not by the community."
To view the ceremony and local media coverage of the event, visit Madigan's Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/MadiganHealth/