Six staff members of University of California Los Angeles’ Reserve Officers Training Corps recently put on an impromptu demonstration of what it truly means to don a military uniform. And it’s already having a major impact on the program’s roughly 100 cadets.
The staffers – Maj. Tyrone Vargas, Lt. Col. Shannon Stambersky, Maj. Steve Kwon, Sgt. 1st Class Rhu Maggio, recruiting officer Romeo Miguel, and program manager Victoria Sanelli – were en route on Los Angeles’ infamous 405 freeway in early May when they came across an 18-wheeler toppled on the center divider and engulfed in flames, Stars and Stripes reports.
“It looked like it exploded,” Maggio, who was driving the crew back to the UCLA campus, told KTLA. “Dust went up, there was a giant fireball.”
The group’s mini-van was among the first on the scene, and the four uniformed ROTC instructors quickly went to work, drawing on their 15 years of Army experience, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The two civilians with them, meanwhile, collected water and fire extinguishers from other motorists.
Maggio and Vargas pulled the big rig driver from the wreckage, but another person was trapped in a crumpled Honda pinned under the truck. “That’s when we all rushed to aid the trapped driver of the car,” Kwon said. “The fire was already burning and picking up flames.”
The soldiers worked to keep the flames at bay and dislodge a chunk of concrete in the way. Others dumped dirt to quell the blaze. Eventually, someone arrived with a battery-powered metal saw, and a soldier cut through the car to pull the driver free.
“Within 30 seconds, the entire vehicle was engulfed in flames,” Kwon said.
Much of the rescue was recorded by passing motorists and posted online, and the ROTC staffers’ efforts did not go unnoticed. “I truly believe they saved his life,” Jose Ahumada, with the California Highway Patrol, told KTLA.
“We train, we work, we’re ready for when anything happens to make decisions and then lead,” said Vargas. “Everybody just fell in line … We could not have stopped the fire. It was too big already. But we had enough time to save this individual.”
“We talk about our deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, but never in a million years would you ever expect to be called upon to do something in Los Angeles,” Stambersky said.
Vargas said he’s already heard from at least one cadet who watched the videos online.
“Good job,” the cadet said. “You walk the walk.” This is the crucial moment in moral development, where adult leaders demonstrate under pressure the fruit of good character. Researchers at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture quoted a teacher in their study, “You can talk all day long. If you don’t walk the walk, they’re not buying it and they [students] know the difference.”