OAHU, Hawaii -- An Army supply sergeant who pulled a fellow Soldier from a burning car will be recognized as this year’s United Services Organization, or USO, Soldier of the Year Nov. 12, following her lifesaving actions in June.
Sgt. Mary Ehiarinmwian, a Nigerian-born Soldier assigned to 8th Theater Sustainment Command’s 130th Engineer Brigade, was on her way to physical training, or PT, when a driver lost control of their car and crashed in front of her.
“I’m very proud of Sgt. Ehiarinmwian,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston. “This is exactly the type of leader the Army builds -- someone that is decisive and quick to take the appropriate action.”
While born in Nigeria, Ehiarinmwian immigrated to Germany as a child. After getting married and finishing school, she came to the United States in 2016, “looking for something different” in her life, she said.
At the time, she worked at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where she was inspired by the professionalism of the local drill sergeants. It didn’t take long for Ehiarinmwian to find what she had been looking for, and in 2017, she joined the Army.
“[The U.S.] is different than where I grew up from,” she said, adding that America provided opportunities she would have never had in Nigeria. “And I just wanted to give back, and do something meaningful” for the country, instead of just living there.
A morning just like any other
In the early morning hours outside of Schofield Barracks, it was no coincidence the sergeant was behind a car moments before the disaster, she believes. “There was a purpose for me to be there.”
The car, a black Honda CR-X driven by another Soldier from her unit, collided with a road sign and flipped through the air before it pierced through the top of a security gate.
At the moment of impact, Ehiarinmwian “followed her instincts,” she said, and without hesitation, pulled over, got out of her car, and rushed toward the injured driver.
Like in her Army training, she gauged if the injured driver was responsive. After assessing “he was OK and not in any pain,” she pulled him from the vehicle with an underarm drag.
Meanwhile, smoke bellowed from the overturned car, and she feared it was a race against the clock. At any moment, “I felt like the car was going to burst into flames,” she said. “But at the time, I didn’t think of the danger.”
After guiding the driver to safety, “he tried to stand up, but to my knowledge when people are in a state of shock they’re not aware of their injuries,” she said. To prevent possible internal bleeding, she directed him to stay on the ground, safely away from his wrecked vehicle.
Around this time, traffic lined up behind them and someone called 911. “It was a big scene,” she said.
After emergency responders arrived, she thought “OK, he’s good, but I’m going to be late” for PT. She was right about the Soldier, who walked away with only minor injuries.
Ehiarinmwian still continued with her morning routine. She arrived at PT, just like any other day, and still worked out with her unit -- the 523rd Engineer Support Company, which falls under the brigade’s 84th Engineer Battalion. Once they heard what happened, her leadership was not concerned with a late arrival.
That day, Ehiarinmwian didn’t think much of the incident, she said. “Granted, I was in shock and shaky, but I knew someone was in worse shape than I was. There were no steps or thought behind it, [I] just got out of the car and helped.”
Simply put, helping others comes with being a Soldier, she said. There is no off-duty, and that morning was no different. “In the military, we take on danger every day. We wake up [and] don’t have regular jobs. We don’t know where we’re going. We could deploy tomorrow.”
Looking back, Ehiarinmwian believes she could have simply called first responders instead of taking action. However, according to her, “every second counts” in emergency situations. “Every little hesitation could have led to a worse result.
“It's good to lend a helping hand,” she said. “If I didn’t stop, no one would have been there to help him. After all, it’s just human nature to help other people.”
Soldier of the year
Months passed, and during that time, she was put in for the 2020 USO Soldier of the Year award by her unit command.
Shortly after, the calls started coming in, she said. First, local Army leaders congratulated her on winning the honor. And at the time, she thought the award may have been local and not a national award.
But, more and more calls from unknown numbers popped up on her phone. One of those calls was from Grinston, the Army’s top enlisted Soldier. Although she expected his call, talking with the SMA made her both “excited and nervous,” she said.
“I felt like what I did wasn’t huge enough for the sergeant major of the Army to call me,” she said. “It’s not every day you get to speak with the [SMA], so it was a big deal for me.”
“After talking with her and hearing her story, it’s a great reminder that our Army is full of people from all walks of life, looking for something bigger than themselves,” Grinston said.
Every year, the USO selects troops from every military branch who distinguish themselves and their units through actions either in combat or a peacetime setting.
The USO is a nonprofit organization that focuses on armed forces members and their families. For decades, the organization has provided live entertainment, social facilities, and other programs to support them.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Ehiarinmwian won’t get to travel to Washington, D.C., like previous winners. Instead, an official ceremony will be held locally for her next week.
Even without the recognition, Ehiarinmwian said she would have responded the way she did all over again. To her, it’s all about camaraderie and relying on each other to accomplish the mission, she said.
“The Army, and the unit I’m in, it’s all family,” she said. “We all have to work together to make sure we can go forward. If unity is not there, it all falls apart. For any Soldier who finds themselves in a dramatic situation like the one I was in, all I say is -- it could be you" called on to save someone.