OAHU, Hawaii – An Army supply sergeant who pulled a fellow Soldier from a burning car in June will be recognized today as the 2020 United Services Organization Soldier of the Year.
Sgt. Mary Ehiarinmwian, originally from Nigeria, is assigned to the 523rd Engineer Support Company, 84th Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade, Schofield Barracks. She was on her way to physical training when the driver of a Honda CR-X ahead lost control of his car and crashed in front of her. The vehicle collided with a road sign and flipped through the air before it pierced the top of a security gate.
At the moment of impact, the sergeant said she “followed her instincts” – immediately pulling over and rushing toward the injured driver. Like in her Army training, she gauged if the victim was responsive. Determining “he was OK and not in any pain,” she pulled him from the vehicle with an underarm drag.
Meanwhile, smoke bellowed from the overturned car, and she feared it was a race against the clock. “I felt like the car was going to burst into flames,” she said. “But at the time, I didn’t think of the danger.”
Ehiarinmwian kept the Soldier seated and calm. “To my knowledge, when people are in a state of shock they’re not aware of injuries,” she said. To prevent possible internal bleeding, she directed him to stay on the ground, safely away from the wrecked vehicle.
After emergency responders arrived, she thought “OK, he’s good, but I’m going to be late for PT.” She was right about the Soldier, who walked away with minor injuries, but wrong about her delinquency. Once unit leaders heard what happened, they were not concerned with her late arrival.
In the days that followed, Ehiarinmwian said she didn’t think much of the incident. “Granted, I was in shock and shaky, but I knew someone was in worse shape than I was. There were no steps or thought behind it. (I) just got out of the car and helped.”
Simply put, helping others comes with being a Soldier, in her mind. There is no “off-duty,” and that morning was no different. “In the military, we take on danger every day,” she said. “We wake up (and) don’t have regular jobs. We don’t know where we’re going. We could deploy tomorrow.”
Looking back, Ehiarinmwian admitted she could have simply called first responders instead of taking action. However, according to her, “every second counts” in emergency situations. Every hesitation could have led to a worse result.
“(I believe) there was a purpose for me to be there,” she said. “It's good to lend a helping hand. If I didn’t stop, no one would have been there to help him. After all, it’s just human nature to help other people.”
Ehiarinmwian was nominated for the USO award by her unit. Upon being selected as the recipient months later, she began receiving phone calls. first from local Army leaders – fooling her into thinking it was a regional award, not a national one. Then, other unknown numbers popped up on her phone, including that of Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston.
Talking with the SMA made her “excited and nervous,” she said. “I felt like what I did wasn’t huge enough for the SMA to call me. It’s not every day you get to speak with a leader of that stature, so it was a big deal for me.”
“I’m very proud of Sgt. Ehiarinmwian,” Grinston later said. “This is exactly the type of leader the Army builds – someone who is decisive and quick to take the appropriate action. After talking with her and hearing her story, it’s a great reminder that our Army is full of people from all walks of life, looking for something bigger than themselves.”
That assessment certainly fits the Soldier who first emigrated from Nigeria to Germany as a child. After getting married and finishing school, she came to the United States in 2016, “looking for something different” in her life, she said.
At the time, she worked at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where she was inspired by the professionalism of the local drill sergeants. It didn’t take long for Ehiarinmwian to find what she had been looking for, and in 2017, she joined the Army.
“(The U.S.) is different than where I grew up,” she said, adding that America provided opportunities she would have never had in Nigeria. “I just wanted to give back, and do something meaningful” for the country, instead of just living here.
Every year, the USO selects troops from each military branch who distinguish themselves and their units through actions either in combat or a peacetime setting. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Ehiarinmwian won’t get to travel to Washington, D.C., like previous winners, to receive recognition. Instead, a ceremony has been organized by her command.
She said the award will serve as a reminder of something she “would do all over again” without expectations of accolades. To her, that day was all about camaraderie and relying on each other to accomplish the mission.
“The Army and the unit I’m in, it’s all family,” she said. “We all have to work together to make sure we can go forward. If unity is not there, it all falls apart. For any Soldier … all I can say is, it could be you” called upon to save someone.