FORT DRUM A booming explosion. A towering inferno. A heat that melted portions of their weapons and made it tough to breathe.
In the face of certain danger, three 1st Brigade Combat Team soldiers Sgts. Roy Arcentales and Caleb Walters and Pfc. Kyle M. Bigue did everything they could to save their friend Sgt. Anthony R. Maddox, who was set on fire during a fuel truck explosion at their base in Andar, Afghanistan, on July 20.
Their heroism that day did not have a happy ending, as Sgt. Maddox died of his injuries two days later. Despite the tragic outcome and the risks they faced, the soldiers said they would have rushed in again.
At that moment it was the right thing to do, Sgt. Arcentales said.
I wouldnt do anything differently, Sgt. Walters said.
The two sergeants spoke to the Times on Friday about their actions that day. Pfc. Bigue was not available. The three serve in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment.
They said they regularly spent time with Sgt. Maddox at the bases mess hall, where they talked about their plans for when they got back from deployment. Sgt. Maddox could often be seen working out at the gym as well, and was considered good at his work as a petroleum supply specialist.
He was the kind of guy, everybody loved him, Sgt. Walters said.
For Sgt. Arcentales, the incident occurred that afternoon as he walked to a helicopter landing area of the base, passing and nodding to Sgt. Maddox during his walk. Away from the fueling point, another soldier alerted them to a large whoosh sound, which was followed by a massive plume of fire and smoke.
It started out as big as a building, and it only got bigger, Sgt. Arcentales said. A loud explosion soon followed. At that point, he remembered that Sgt. Maddox was at the fueling point.
He was just there, Sgt. Arcentales said. Thats what made me turn back.
Sgt. Walters said he and Pfc. Bigue saw the fire and explosion from their observation tower, and spotted Sgt. Maddox emerging from the explosion. With other fuel in the area of the blast, they first had the task of getting people to safety, before rushing to the aid of Sgt. Maddox.
Sgt. Arcentales said he yelled to Sgt. Maddox, who came toward him and got to the ground, where he, Sgt. Walters and Pfc. Bigue attempted to smother the flames and pull him to safety. All three soldiers had several articles of clothing burn as they tried to use them to smother the flames and get a grip on Sgt. Maddox. The heat made it hard to breathe; it was so intense, they said, that other responders struggled to get to their location.
Somehow, Sgt. Arcentales said, the three were able to get Sgt. Maddox onto to a stretcher, and he was rushed to a nearby aid station. The three later joined him, as they suffered an array of burns. Sgt. Arcentales temporarily lost hearing in his right ear.
At first, Sgt. Arcentales said, he was hopeful his friend could survive his burn wounds. However, Sgt. Maddox died July 22 at an Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. He was 22 years old.
The two sergeants said in the aftermath of the painful incident, they replayed what had happened several times, looking for things they could have done differently.
In my mind I kept asking myself, Could there have been something better that I could have done? Sgt. Arcentales said. Only recently have they been able to come to terms with what happened that day about six months ago.
I just realized, I made the decision to go and help, Sgt. Walters said.
As the unit returned late last fall, the three soldiers are in the process of being formally recognized for their actions that day.
The two sergeants were presented the Soldiers Medal, the highest non-combat award, in late January. Pfc. Bigue will receive the award at a later date. The award puts them in rare company: It has been presented to only 39 other soldiers during operations in Afghanistan.
Despite enthusiasm for receiving the award, and the chance to serve as an example for other soldiers, the two sergeants said it was also a painful reminder of their friend and what happened that day.
We didnt really care about getting the medal themselves, Sgt. Walters said. This is not going to bring our friend back.