Face of Defense: Soldier dies rescuing people in burning building

FORT LEE, Va. — Army Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah sacrificed his life to save others in a burning building in New York City.

The 27-year-old New York National Guardsman, a wheeled vehicle mechanic who graduated Dec. 14 from the Ordnance School at the Sustainment Center of Excellence, caught the attention of senior officials as well as the national media after entering a burning apartment building in the Bronx at least three times on the night of Dec. 28, saving four people.

Mensah’s remains were found in a location that indicated his intention to rescue more people if he could.

A resident of the building himself, Mensah, who hailed from Ghana, is one of 12 people who died in the blaze described as the most destructive residential fire in decades, according to media reports. It was started by a youngster playing with a gas stove, authorities reported.

Former commander’s praise

At Fort Lee, people who’d trained Mensah expressed shock at his demise but pride in how he conducted himself in the face of danger. Army Lt. Col. Eric Booker, 16th Ordnance Battalion commander, was one of them.

“The values, morals and honor he displayed — I am really proud knowing he came from our organization,” Booker said of Mensah, who’d been assigned to Delta Company.

More than 40,000 advanced individual training students graduate from Fort Lee schools each year and are subsequently assigned to active duty and reserve component units. The trainers here are not afforded the time to ponder what becomes of the troops once they graduate.

“You do sometimes wonder after they depart what type of experiences they’re going to have as they go into the operational Army,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Patricio Cardona Vega, command sergeant major of the 16th Ordnance Battalion. “For me, it is important, at least in this circumstance, the paradigm we hope every soldier gathers from being a part of our organization — that of being prideful — is one this soldier obviously lived up to, based on the actions he took in this tragic event that led to the loss of his life.”

Prophetic essay

Mensah, two weeks removed from his military school graduation, was not fully indoctrinated into the Army by most measures. However, Army values such as duty, selfless service, honor and personal courage — taught to him during basic combat training and reinforced in AIT — arguably became more than concepts. This was evidenced in a required essay Mensah wrote upon being assigned to the 16th. In it, he talked extensively about “protecting citizens and saving lives,” offering a framework for the actions he took Dec. 28, Cardona Vega said.

“He verbalized in that essay what his emotions were and his reasons for serving,” he said. “As soldiers, we take a sacred oath and most don’t take it lightly. That oath is our commitment, our commitment to the American people, our commitment to those who can’t do for or defend themselves. It is a commitment of selfless service and sacrifice. As he engaged in the acts leading to his tragic loss of life — in the back of his mind — I’m sure the oath we all take and the sense of responsibility we all have weighed heavily upon him.”

Salutes from senior officials

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo awarded Mensah the state’s highest military award — the New York State Medal for Valor — on Jan. 2. The award citation says Mensah’s “courageous and selfless act in the face of unimaginable conditions are consistent with the highest traditions of uniformed service and deserving of the highest possible recognition.”

A posthumous award of the Soldier’s Medal was approved by Army Secretary Mark Esper on Jan. 1.

Of all the recognition and laudatory comments Mensah received, perhaps the comments provided by his recruiter, Army Staff Sgt. Ruben Martinez-Ortiz of the New York National Guard, rings the loudest.

“I knew from the moment we met his heart was as big as our National Guard family,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “He was ready to serve our nation and community. He was the embodiment of our Army values.”


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