Army pilots save a man’s life after day of ‘bad luck’

An aviation contractor at Fort Novosel, Alabama is alive today because a whole bunch of things went wrong. There were mistakes, delays and a once-a-career technical glitch, plus a moment of dumb luck on a scheduling calendar. If just one of those had gone “right,” Tim Clemmons, a contractor who works on the fleet of helicopters that train new Army pilots, may not have survived an April 26 medical event that left him without a pulse, far from help.

But instead, all those annoying moments came together to put just the right soldiers in just the right spot to save Clemmons’ life.

According to a July 1 Army release, the string of luck for three pilots began as a key training flight in a UH-60 Blackhawk on April 26 for Chief Warrant Officer 3 Marty L. Holland II. An instructor pilot with the 212th Aviation Regiment, Holland is one of Fort Novosel’s cadre of flyers who teach and certify all new helicopter pilots in the U.S. military. This day’s flight would be a check ride for two flight students, 1st Lt. Christopher Berggren and 2nd Lt. Thomas Taylor.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Marty L. Holland II, a UH-60 Black Hawk instructor pilot, joins flight school students 1st Lt. Christopher Berggren and 2nd Lt. Thomas Taylor, and Tim Clemmons, an airfield avionics lead contractor, for a photo after a ceremony honoring the Soldiers for their efforts in responding to a medical emergency in April 2024, at Lowe Army Heliport, Fort Novosel, Ala., June 21, 2024. (U.S. Army photo by Kelly Morris)

As the three pilots reached the flightline, a worker approached with Holland a tiny figure of Jesus in his hand. 

“I think you’re going to need a little Jesus today,” the man said, giving it to Holland. Whether the gesture was a brief joke about the inexperience of the two students, it still struck the senior pilot as odd.

“I was like, ‘what do I not know about what’s going on today?” Holland asked Berggren and Taylor.

The crew flew their check ride, then once back on the ground began their post-flight procedures, which Holland tracked in an electronic logbook. The device’s battery was charged and, Holland said, he’d never in his career seen one malfunction.

It crashed. That caused a 30-minute delay, during which the crew waited on the flightline.

Once the glitch cleared, the crew was finally able to jump on a flightline bus for a ride back to their garrison, normally among the most routine moments of any pilot’s day. But the driver took a “wrong turn,” taking the three pilots to a corner of the airfield they had no reason to be anywhere near.

Now a flight that began with an off-key gift had ended with an abnormal delay and, finally, an unforeseen detour.

“A lot of things put us in that place at that time,” said Holland.

That was when the three pilots saw an unconscious man. Clemmons, a then-55-year-old avionics technician, had been driving an all terrain vehicle across the remote area when he’d suffered a medical emergency and passed out.

The pilots would never have seen him if they had been in the ‘right’ place. Instead, they turned out to be exactly where they needed to be. 

“The bus driver shot us over there really quick,” Holland told the Army. “We took off running.”

Dropping to a knee to check the man, they pilots saw Clemmons’ eyes were glazed over and his skin gray.

“I literally looked up at Chris, and I said, ‘He’s gone.’ There’s no coming back from what I saw,” Holland said. Still, he and Berggren started CPR as Taylor called 911.

But again, strange luck found the men: though Berggren is training to a pilot, he was already a full EMT and in great physical shape.

“The training kicked in—Airway, Bleeding, Circulation—so immediately I moved to doing airway, and told Chris to start pumping,” said Holland, referring to Berggren. “For eight minutes this PT stud pumped on this man’s chest.”

As first responders arrived, other airfield personnel rushed over as well, and the crowd began to ask the pilots if they thought Clemmons was going to make it.

“I looked around at all the contractors, and I didn’t want to say ‘no’ because all of his friends were standing around, so I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be good’,” Holland said. “I didn’t believe it when I said it.”

Berggren’s medical training was telling him the same thing. “It kind of sank in that his family was never going to see him again,” he said.

Then first responders said they had a pulse. 

“I was like, ‘we’re talking about the same guy, right?’” Taylor said

The contractors who had gathered around formed a circle and began to pray. But all three pilots — who as flightcrew receive significant training in hypoxia and the effect of oxygen loss on the brain — were realistic about what might lay ahead.

“There’s no way there’s not going to be brain damage with that long being out,” Holland said.

It was a final moment of the crew being ‘wrong’ for day, as they discovered at a later hospital visit.

“His color was back. It was incredible,” Holland said. “It’s completely a miracle. All the tiny little coincidences and everything added up to this, to (Berggren) having an EMT license, to us going by at the exact right time.”

In late June, Brig. Gen. Jonathan C. Byrom, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center commander, presented Holland with the Army Safety Guardian Award, given to a soldiers “who demonstrate extraordinary actions or skills by reacting to an emergency event or an imminently dangerous situation,” according to an Army description.

Holland said the delays and mistakes of the day had frustrated him.

“When the logbook died, I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me. I was mad, because this shouldn’t happen,” he said. “To find out later that was one piece of the chess board being moved to make sure we found him.”

But in the end, they put the three soldiers exactly where they needed to be.

“I got to go to a 56th birthday party for a man that I found dead three weeks before that,” Holland said.

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Matt White

Senior Editor

Matt White is a senior editor at Task & Purpose. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.

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