LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. – What defines a person as a hero? Most people envision a hero as a knight in shining armor, a superhero, or someone who is physically strong and courageous.
Real-life hero Staff Sgt. Eric McKinley, 56th Civil Engineer Squadron real property organization specialist, was presented the 2020 Air Force Sergeants Association Pitsenbarger Award on behalf of Maj. Gen. Mark Weatherington, Air Education Training Command deputy commander, for his actions of selflessness on- and off-duty.
McKinley helped save two individuals’ lives off-duty in 2019 – and so many more before that.
While going to softball practice the evening of April 26, 2019, McKinley witnessed a car accident – a car, 100 feet in front of him, traveling approximately 45 mph ran head-on into a palm tree.
McKinley pulled over, quickly assessed the situation, and instructed a passerby to call 911 to report the patient was alive and conscious, but trapped. He also instructed another passerby to retrieve the fire extinguisher from McKinley’s car due to the risk of fire.
McKinley grabbed his first aid kit, broke through the back window. He said it was the only entrance available because the car doors were crushed due to force of the impact. He disregarded the broken glass and crawled through to help the individual in the driver’s seat.
“His legs were wrapped under the engine, so I only had access to his chest up,” he said. “I was able to get to his airway and maintain that and make sure to keep it open, because he was bleeding out from his face. His wrist was broken, so I was controlling the bleeding on that. I wrapped it and got pressure on it and kept him conscious for 20 minutes until fire rescue arrived.”
The fire department used a hydraulic rescue tool to pry Indio, the passenger trapped in the car, out of the wreckage. He emerged from the crash with critical injuries. With months of hard work, he had to relearn how to walk due to his injured right leg and left foot. Independent motion and dexterity of the fingers in his hand is limited, but Indio said he’s grateful to have any movement, all things considered.
“It was a long road to recovery,” said Indio. “Overall I’m sure the outcome could have been much worse had Eric not stopped that night, and I’m forever grateful that he did.”
On July 21, 2019, three months after helping Indio, McKinley found himself in another position to offer life-saving assistance. McKinley and his wife were flying from Phoenix to Montana when a flight attendant asked for
emergency personnel to help with a situation. A teenager with a heart condition was unresponsive.
“We did a head-tilt chin lift to open up the airway and got him an oxygen tank because he was unresponsive,” said McKinley. “I put the mask on him and we were able to cool him down. He started coming back and was responsive again. He started seizing a little bit, so we just kept everyone clear and made sure we put pads along the seats so he didn’t hit anything.”
The teen’s heart was beating excessively with a heart rate at 150-250 beats per minute causing him to pass out. McKinley said they needed to cool the teen down quickly to stabilize him and return his heart rhythm to normal.
During the three-hour flight, McKinley continued to monitor him to ensure his vitals remained stable. When they landed in Montana, airport medical staff offered the teen additional assistance needed and then released him.
McKinley said his eight years of experience in the Air Force helped, but his prior experience as an EMT was crucial for those lifesaving situations.
“I was an EMT for six years in Rochester, New York [prior to joining the Air Force],” said McKinley. “I started at 18. My dad was a paramedic, so it was something I could do with my dad. I’ve responded to probably thousands of incidents.”
McKinley says it’s important to maintain CPR and Self-Aid and Buddy Care (SABC) certifications and standards in case they’re needed. He teaches the courses routinely at Luke.
“I did not expect [going to softball practice] to end up in the back of somebody’s car,” he said. “That’s not planned. Maintaining those standards and taking training seriously is really what made me able to help him. If I had not done that and just ignored all of that training, then I wouldn’t have known what to do and that makes a huge difference.”
Helping save lives is a team effort, said McKinley. He said he couldn’t do it on his own.
“The biggest thing is your team,” he said. “It’s never just you. It’s always a group. With the car incident, there were multiple departments and multiple people that came to help. Just do what you’re able to do the best you can. As long you know you did that you can go home happy.”
McKinley represented service before self when he chose to spring into action and assist patients in need. His rapid response and ability to direct personnel under pressure were critical to resolving the life-threatening situations.
“I refuse to be that person to drive by and say it’s not my problem,” said McKinley. “I had the means and the knowledge to help, so I did. If you have the ability to do something, it’s the right thing to do. I’d hope someone would stop for me if I was in need.”