One of the Army’s seven core values is personal courage — a value that challenges Soldiers to face fear, danger, or adversity.
On Jan. 22, Sgt. 1st Class Jaime Herrera with the 181st Multi-Functional Training Brigade at Fort McCoy may have best exemplified that core value when he helped save two people who fell through the ice at Mirror Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells.
How it happened
On that day, Herrera went ice fishing on Mirror Lake with his Family; his fiancee, Sabrina Lord; and others.
“We arrived around 11 a.m. and made our way out onto the ice,” said Herrera, a 19-year Army veteran. “I did my usual checks, such as making sure the ice was thick enough and safe. At the same time, I noticed a man and his daughter (Bryan and Hattie Huinker) who were about 100 yards to my east fishing in an area known for trouble.”
Soon after setting up his ice shelter on the lake, Herrera said he heard a noise.
“I heard a noise and yelling behind me,” he said. “I turned to see the man and his daughter in the water.” The Huinkers had encountered thin ice and plunged through into freezing-cold water. Herrera immediately responded with help from Lord.
“The little girl, who I later learned is 10 (years old), was closest to me,” Herrera said. “I knew right away she was not going to be able to get out on her own. Her father was behind her another 20 to 30 feet and was unable to help her.”
Once he was within 10 feet of Hattie, Herrera crawled on his belly to disperse his weight to try and reach the girl. He knew then that he would have to go into the water to help her.
Herrera made several attempts to get Hattie out of the water, but the thin ice kept breaking around them. Finally, one last attempt did the trick. He went to spot where he could touch the lake bottom to use his legs. He was able to push Hattie out of the water and back onto the ice, where she crawled to safety.
“Because the ice was only 2 inches or less where they went through, as I was trying to lift us out, the ice kept breaking under us,” Herrera said. “Realizing we were not getting out together … and using my legs to push up, I was able to get her out of the water.”
Next, Herrera said he needed to get himself out so he could help the father, but he had another situation to deal with — Lord also was in the water.
“While I was rescuing the little girl, Sabrina was heading to me with the rope to assist me and as she approached my location, she fell through the ice and began to encounter the same situation with not being able to climb out due to thin ice,” Herrera said.
Now with himself, his fiancee, and the father still in the water. Herrera knew he had to get out of the water to be of any further assistance.
Using his fists, he broke sections of thin ice until he got to an area of thicker ice where he could get himself out.
“Any longer and I probably wouldn’t have gotten out because my legs were starting to fail from the cold water,” he said.
Once out of the water, Herrera quickly ran to his ice sled, cut the pull rope from the sled, then used that rope to go back and pull Lord from the water.
“I crawled back to her, tossed her the rope, and assisted her in getting back to safe ice,” Herrera said. “I then walked Sabrina off of the ice while at the same time yelling and trying to motivate (Bryan Huinker).”
At the start of the incident, one member of Herrera’s ice fishing party, Lord’s 9-year-old son Malecki Lee, had called 911 for assistance. Rescue and emergency medical service personnel arrived quickly. They helped Bryan Huinker recover after he was able to get himself out of the water.
“I got my kids into our truck, Sabrina to the ambulance, and waited for (Bryan) to get off the ice before being seen by the emergency personnel,” Herrera said. “I was treated for frostbite and mild hypothermia at the scene and released. I lost sensitivity in three of my left hand fingertips, due to them being in the water holding the little girl for an extended period of time. I spent around 20 minutes in the water.”
Everyone back on safe ground
News reports following the incident showed that everyone escaped major injury.
Emergency medical personnel were able to ensure all four who went in the water were warmed and cared for. Bryan Huinker expressed appreciation for the support of Herrera and Lord and said he and Hattie will continue to ice fish in the future.
Herrera said his decision to act was natural.
“I think service members have a natural ‘call to action’ mentality,” Herrera said. “Otherwise, why would we be in the service to begin with? Through the course of service, it becomes reinforced to us all to be team players. It is almost impossible to resist helping those around us, whether they be military or civilian. I think that any service member faced with the same type of situation would have reacted in the manner that I did.”
Herrera said helping others in a lifesaving situation also is about treating others “the way you want to be treated.”
“If your child or other Family member was in danger, wouldn’t you want someone to help them if they could? So when you are faced with a situation like this, do what you know you would want someone to do for you,” he said. “Just know your limitations when responding. … Sometimes doing what you think is helping can actually make a dangerous situation worse.”
Because of his actions, Herrera has been nominated for the Soldier’s Medal.
The medal “is awarded to any person of the armed forces who, while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguished themselves by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy,” according to Army Regulation 600-8-22.
“The performance must have involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy.”
Herrera said he was just happy he could help.
“Honestly, I am kind of indifferent about it,” he said. “Having been on active duty for more than 19 years as a combat arms Soldier with multiple combat deployments, I am no stranger to stressful situations. The most important part to me is that everyone was safe and that I was in a position to prevent what could have been a tragic event.”
Herrera and Lee also have been recognized as Hometown Heroes by the Lake Delton Fire Department.
“It’s a great recognition for Malecki, who helped guide emergency responders to our location,” Herrera said.
Story by Scott Sturkol (Fort McCoy Public Affairs Office)