MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
It was an average Sunday evening, May 17, as two Combat Center Marines were traveling to the base after a weekend on the coast. However, as they neared the Whitewater rest area on Interstate 10 West, their lives came crashing together.
Capt. Thomas Schwabenbauer, a former platoon commander with Company C, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, was on his way to the Combat Center from San Diego after visiting some friends. He was en route to check in to his newly-assigned unit, the Advisor Training Group.
“It was about 5:40 p.m. and I was just driving down the road when about 100 meters up, I heard the crash and saw the [sport utility vehicle] up in the air,” said the Franklin, Penn., native. “The first thing I remember thinking was I knew I had to get over there as fast as possible. It was go time.”
The SUV belonged to a Palm Springs, Calif., resident working as a store manager in a Cabazon, Calif., shopping outlet, said Randy Dopp, the California Highway Patrol officer who responded to the accident. The rear left tire of the vehicle became separated and the driver lost control. As she attempted to pull over, the vehicle flipped and rolled several times before stopping upside-down in the far right lane.
After seeing the accident, Schwabenbauer weaved through the traffic to try and help the driver.
“When I got to the side of the road, I saw there was a lady inside,” he said. “I jumped inside and got her seat belt off, but I noticed her leg was stuck between the car and the ground. We had to rock the car up in order to pull her out.”
Once the driver was outside of the vehicle, Schwabenbauer said that is when he noticed the full extent of the driver’s injuries.
“Her leg from about mid-shin down was just gone,” he said. “Another lady who had stopped to help was using her belt as a tourniquet.”
Lance Cpl. James Nielsen, a rifleman with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, was also driving down I-10 at the time. He was returning to the base after spending his weekend in Carlsbad, Calif., visiting friends and family. Nielsen also saw the accident from the road.
“I was a little farther back, but I saw the car go airborne and land,” said the Carmel, Ind., native. “Once I got there, I went back to my car looking for medical supplies. The captain adjusted the tourniquet while I started applying gauze.”
Both Marines continued rendering first aid and comforted the victim while they waited for emergency services to arrive.
“There were people helping, people trying to help and people who just pulled over to watch,” Schwabenbauer said. “I know the lady was grateful we were there. Nielsen and I were able to help her and keep her calm.
“Nielsen really knew what he was doing,” he said. “He stayed calm through the whole thing. It made me feel more calm knowing there was another Marine there, and it was cool how we worked together and were on the same page.”
Once emergency services arrived on scene, the two Marines remained behind to help any other way they could.
“When I arrived, there were two guys who looked like Marines directing traffic,” Dopp said. “The two Marines both stayed until the tow truck arrived and they helped pick up debris from the road. As far as I can tell, they did an excellent job.
“I’ve been to accidents before where Marines have shown up and helped,” he said. “I guess they just react instinctively.”
Nielsen and Schwabenbauer have both attended medical training courses beyond basic first aid. Schwabenbauer was able to use knowledge he gained in the Operational and Emergency Medical Skills course. Nielsen was a student in the Combat Lifesavers Course before his battalion deployed to Afghanistan last year, and worked with corpsmen frequently.
“I’m definitely grateful for the training,” Schwabenbauer said. “I just remembered what I learned in OEMS and how they taught us to wrap tourniquets. If I didn’t have that knowledge, then I might have done something wrong.”
Nielsen said medical knowledge was not the only part of his prior training he needed that day. The ability to work well under pressure also played a key role in saving the victim’s life.
“Having this training definitely kept you calm,” he said. “It slowed you down so you would be able to go in and think properly instead of just freaking out.
“I’m glad as many people stopped to help and that she was in as good of hands as she was,” he said. “All I can say is I did my best, and I can only pray that next time I can do as good or better. I’m not perfect – I was just there to help.”