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U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Thomas Smith, the sergeant major of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 2, reads an award citation at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, May 22, 2023. U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jose Arispe and Cpl. John Graham, both unmanned aerial vehicle avionics technicians with VMU-2, were awarded certificates of commendation for their actions in response to a vehicle crash while off duty. VMU-2 is a subordinate unit of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the aviation combat element of II Marine Expeditionary Force. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Elias E. Pimentel III)

Photo by Lance Cpl. Elias E. Pimentel III

U.S. Marines from VMU-2 awarded for responding to a vehicle crash

13 Jun 2023 | Lance Cpl. Elias E. Pimentel III 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing

On a Friday night, a group of friends celebrated a birthday at a local bar. They met a patron shortly before closing time. The thought of pulling this individual from a flipped car never crossed their minds as they wished him a safe travel home. However, the scene that the U.S. Marines encountered while traveling back to base tested instincts and skills instilled in them since boot camp.

“As we were coming around a bend, it looked like there was a car waiting to pull out,” said Cpl. John Graham, an unmanned-aerial vehicle avionics technician with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 2. “But then we saw that it was upside down. There were three smaller trees knocked over, and it was in the middle of a ditch.”

The initial sight of a flipped-over vehicle shocked the group of Marines. U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jose Arispe III, an unmanned-aerial vehicle avionics technician with VMU-2, Lance Cpl. Zelina Reyes, an aviation-maintenance data specialist with VMU-2, Cpl. Tanner Swain, an aviation-logistics information management and support specialist with VMU-2, and Graham pulled over to better assess the situation.

“It was an absurd sight,” said Arispe. “The creek was really marshy, and I remember just seeing water pretty much waist deep.”

The majority of the vehicle was submerged in the creek. The car’s engine was shut off, but the wheels were still spinning. The accident had just happened. The driver was still inside the vehicle, also upside down.

“I checked for consciousness by trying to get him to talk before I opened the door,” said Graham. “When I got him out, I checked him for broken bones, bleeding, scratches, and bruises. He was completely lost. At first, I thought that he had a concussion, so I was really slow with him. He seemed to be all right, so we laid him down.”

While Graham inspected the driver for external wounds, Arispe called the ambulance while assuring the driver that help was on the way. Once paramedics arrived, Graham and Arispe stayed to ensure the driver would be okay. The course of events lasted about thirty minutes.

“It was pretty quick,” said Graham. “No matter how fast life is moving, to see something like that happen makes you realize that stuff can change on a dime. One decision can change the whole outcome of your life.”

Graham and Arispe reflected on what had transpired in the days following the accident.

“It didn't feel real at the time,” said Arispe. “There are many ways that situation could have went, but I'm glad that he was okay and that we were there to actually call somebody. I don't think he would have called anybody, and if nobody was driving down that road, he just would have been stuck there upside down and possibly would’ve passed out.”

The Marines were not told that they were receiving an award for their actions. To them, they did what any Marine would’ve been expected to do. They were caught by complete surprise when their commanding officer called them in front of the entire squadron to receive recognition for their response to that night’s incident.

“I didn't think we were going to be recognized or anything for it,” said Arispe. “I think the bigger picture here is that there's good people out in this world. Marines are always going to do the right thing. If we see something, we're going to help.”

Graham and Arispe seek to be an example for any Marine who may find themselves in a similar situation.

“You never know what life's going to bring and that could be you at some point,” said Graham. “Do the right thing and do the thing right.”

On May 22, 2023, Reyes, Swain, Graham, and Arispe were awarded certificates of commendation by their commanding officer for their response to the accident and assistance to the driver.

2nd Marine Aircraft Wing