FORT LEE, Va. (Jan. 11, 2018) -- On a yearly basis, thousands of advanced individual training students graduate from the many courses offered at the Sustainment Center of Excellence here, subsequently pursuing their lives and careers largely unknown to the cadre manning the training pipelines.
The most recent exception to that scenario is a Soldier by the name of Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah.
The 27-year-old New York National Guardsman, a wheeled vehicle mechanic who graduated from the Ordnance School Dec. 14, caught the attention of installation leaders 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 others if he could.
A resident of the building himself, Mensah 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.
Here at Fort Lee, those responsible for training the Ghanaian native expressed shock at his demise but pride in how he conducted himself in the face of danger. Lt. Col. Eric L. Booker, commander, 16th Ordnance Battalion, was one of them.
“The values, morals and honor he displayed – I am really proud knowing he came from our organization,” he said of the Soldier formerly assigned to Delta Company.
More than 40,000 AIT students graduate from Fort Lee schools each year and are subsequently assigned to active duty and Reserve Component units. The endeavor is such a laborious undertaking that many of the trainers 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, CSM, 16th Ord. Bn. “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.”
Mensah, two weeks removed from his AIT graduation, was not fully indoctrinated as a Soldier 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 mere concepts. This was evidenced in a required essay he 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, said Cardona Vega.
“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 on him heavily.”
As history has it, there are thousands of newspaper and TV news accounts of people who flee home and business fires. By contrast, there are less about those braving their way through thick smoke and flames to save lives, not knowing what lurks in the next room or around the next corner.
Further, there are fewer still who ever live to describe their exploits.
No wonder Mensah and his conduct on that tragic day are worthy of recognition. Senior Army leaders, New York City Mayor William DeBlasio, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer are among those acknowledging Mensah’s daring feats.
Schumer, in a Jan. 9 Facebook post, commended the Soldier for his conduct.
“… On behalf of all New Yorkers, and all Americans, I want to express my sincerest gratitude to Pfc. Mensah and his family for the heroic actions he displayed on that fateful day; it will not be forgotten.”
DeBlasio, touching upon the recent controversies surrounding immigrants, said in a Dec. 30 Twitter post Mensah is the embodiment of those from other countries who have embraced this nation as their own.
“Private Emmanuel Mensah was a first-generation immigrant, a Soldier, and a New Yorker. He gave his life rescuing his neighbors in the Bronx fire. His heroism exemplifies the best of our city. Rest in peace.”
Cuomo approved for Mensah the state’s highest military award – the New York State Medal for Valor – on Jan. 2. The citation reads:
“His 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 T. Esper Jan. 1.
Of all the recognition and laudatory comments Mensah received, perhaps one are more telling than those coming from the person who easily spotted his individual character – his recruiter, Staff Sgt. Ruben Martinez-Ortiz of the New York National Guard.
“I knew from the moment we met his heart was as big as our National Guard family,” he said. “He was ready to serve our nation and community. Pfc. Mensah was the embodiment of what our Army Values stand for.”
And a heartening inspiration to train troops to the highest standard.