It’s not every day you get to thank your Guardian Angels for saving your life, but on Monday, retired Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Stringer was able to do just that.
In a ceremony Monday, two 48th Rescue Squadron Guardian Angels were presented the Bronze Star with Valor for their rescue of Stringer in February 2012, when the was Marine sergeant was critically injured by an improvised explosive device. Against all-odds, Stringer was at the ceremony and able to personally thank his rescuers for their heroism.
Capt. Kevin Epstein, 48th Rescue Squadron Combat Rescue Officer, and Tech. Sgt. Brandon Daugherty, 48th Rescue Squadron Pararescuemen, recalled Feb. 21, 2012, when their lives intersected and they heroically overcame countless obstacles to save Stringer.
The Bronze Star is the fourth-highest individual military award, and is awarded with Valor for acts of heroism in a combat zone; Stringer whole heartedly agreed that this medal was well-deserved.
“I would not be here at all if it wasn’t for these gentlemen,” said Stringer.
Colonel Sean Choquette, the 563rd Rescue Group commander, presented the medals.
“These two are exceptional Airmen and leaders,” Choquette said. “They are consummate professionals and combat seasoned veterans, recognized universally by their teammates for their excellence.”
Choquette also recognized Stringer as one of many unsung heroes in the Explosive Ordinance Disposal field.
“He and his teammate’s lay their lives on the line daily to protect those who follow them … it is incredibly courageous work,” Choquette said.
During the ceremony, Daugherty recalled the events leading up to Stringer’s rescue.
“It was a mission that wasn’t even supposed to happen,” Daugherty said. “Our crews were conducting another rescue, so when the call came in about an MRAP that hit an IED and had four trapped individuals inside, we were only allowed to launch after the [squadron] leadership made some quick coordination and a British helicopter was able to provide transport. We rushed out within minutes, with some very basic extraction tools.”
Both Daugherty and Epstein recalled that smoke was billowing from the vehicle when they arrived, and they had to work quickly or it would soon become impossible to recover the individuals trapped inside. Epstein conducted command and control of the situation and Daugherty directed the team to use the Jaws of Life to open the damaged vehicle and rescue the trapped personnel.
“We were going in and out on breath holds because smoke was still billowing,” Daugherty said.
While the rescue team was assisting the wounded and attempting to extinguish the vehicle fire, a secondary IED exploded, severely wounding Stringer, who was the EOD Marine on the scene.
“I bit an IED pretty well, and these guys also got bit,” Stringer said. “They were still able to revert back to their training and save my life.”
Daugherty and Epstein, five meters from the blast, were knocked down and Epstein’s helmet and radios went flying. They quickly assessed the situation and Daugherty discovered Stringer, who was only 10 feet away from the blast and had been blown over the team when it detonated.
Epstein emphasized the importance of the whole team in mission success that day.
“I had an outstanding team while I was out there and I was fortunate enough to be part of that team. I think today is a culmination of that, we went through a lot of training and we went through a lot out there, today is recognition of everything coming together,” Epstein said.
Daugherty recalled that Stringer’s face had been so mangled by the blast he could not breathe. Epstein called in another medical evacuation, while Daugherty and his team conducted critical lifesaving care.
“It was the worst trauma I’ve ever seen in my life. He was twitching and trembling and you could tell he was suffocating,” Daugherty said.
The team first conducted a cricothyrotomy, making an incision in his throat to open an airway.
“When we put the tube in and I heard a gasp of air, I thought for the first time that this guy might make it,” Daugherty said.
The team continued breathing for Stringer, providing him with stabilizing medicine and conducting every medical procedure possible to save his life, before carrying him on a stretcher to the 55th RQS HH-60G Pavehawk helicopter that arrived to evacuate him.
Many months later, Daugherty was at work when he received an unexpected call from Stringer.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Daugherty said.
Incredibly enough, after weeks in a coma, several reconstructive surgeries and continued therapy, Stringer was able to personally thank the person instrumental in saving his life.
Daugherty remains humble about his role in the rescue.
“It is not anything I deserve over anybody else in our community, any pararescueman would have reacted the same way,” Daugherty said.
Choquette reflected on the heroism of Epstein and Daugherty.
“What drove these men two years ago?” Choquette asked. “Many things probably … training, discipline, their warrior ethos, their loyalty to one another and the mission, our Rescue motto. All of these, but I would sum it up in one word: “Jack.” “Jack” is the reason we as a force exist. In the Rescue lexicon, “Jack” is the survivor we are sent to save from isolation and injury; the teammate we help live to see another day. We are fortunate that “Jack”” on that February day, is here. Sergeant Stringer is here because of these men’s efforts.”