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Everybody likes to get out of school early, and Army Capts. Hayden Penn and Cody Oswald were no exception when they were dismissed from class at the Field Artillery Captain Career Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma earlier than usual on June 10. But instead of a relaxing Friday afternoon drive into the weekend, the two soldiers found themselves in a life-or-death situation that would test their military training.

While driving south on Interstate 44, Penn noticed a pickup truck that had rolled over and was smoking.

“I could tell the truck was on its side,” Penn said in an Army press release written by Keith Pannell, a media relations officer for Fort Sill. “There was a second lieutenant in uniform and a civilian and it looked like they were trying to tip the truck back onto its wheels. Then, they tried to get an older gentleman out through the windshield, which had broken out.”

Penn pulled over, climbed on top of the crashed truck, opened the driver’s side door, and reached it to “get the old fella stood up,” he said. His classmate, Oswald, pulled up to the scene shortly afterward. As Oswald assessed the situation and saw another soldier — Penn — standing on top of the truck, he was more concerned with the fire spreading through the crashed vehicle.

“The truck was obviously on fire and there were no emergency vehicles there at that time,” Oswald said. “I didn’t know it was Penn on top of the truck, but he was yelling that he had a fire extinguisher in his vehicle, so I ran to get it.”

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It was just in time, too. By then the underside of the truck was on fire, so Oswald let loose with the fire extinguisher. It must have been an intense moment because the whole time Oswald was unaware it was his classmate on top of the truck. Before Oswald had fully emptied the extinguisher, Penn had already helped pull the driver out through the broken windshield, with the help of the second lieutenant and the civilian who preceded them at the crash site. 

“Army training certainly helped with this situation,” Oswald said. “I have some experience putting out vehicle fires, but usually it’s Humvee’s.”

The instinct to help stood out that Friday afternoon, especially as most traffic kept speeding past on Interstate 44.

“They looked like they needed a hand,” Penn said. “It was just a situation where they needed help.”

“I’ve always stopped at an accident scene if there’s no first responders on scene yet,” Oswald said. “Especially, when you see a guy standing on the side of a flipped-over truck that’s on fire.”

Soon an off-duty Altus, Oklahoma police officer arrived in an unmarked police car and used his emergency red-and-blue lights to block off a lane of traffic. Within about 10 minutes, rescue crews arrived on the scene. The driver the two artillery soldiers had helped rescue was dazed and had cuts to his head and arms, but overall he seemed okay, the press release said. They may have saved the driver’s life, but neither of the soldiers consider themselves heroes.

“No, I just stopped and just happened to be in the right place at the right time, I guess,” Penn said.

The soldiers pointed out that the lieutenant who was one of the first on the scene deserves praise too, but it was still unclear who that soldier was. The three soldiers’ swift action is the latest in a very long line of off-duty service members who stepped in to do the right thing at the spur of the moment, often without proper footwear. Earlier this spring, several airmen with the 125th Special Tactics Squadron, some of them in flip-flops, helped save the lives of two severely injured motorcycle riders on a highway in Idaho, providing trauma medicine skills and experience when it was most needed. Late last year, a Marine Corps recruiter kicked through a car windshield with his bare feet to save a man trapped in an overturned vehicle in California, and back in 2018, a Coast Guardsman celebrated getting married on a beach in Alabama by diving into the ocean to pull a drowning teenager out of the water shortly after the ceremony.

Though the military often recognizes heroic service members with awards or decorations, neither Penn nor Oswald said they needed accolades to recognize what they had done. 

“However, it remains to be seen what their commander and the Army might have to say about that in the future,” the press release concluded.

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