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A cry for help

Photo by Senior Airman Jake Nixon. Graphic by Senior Airman Apryl Hall.

Photo by Senior Airman Jake Nixon. Graphic by Senior Airman Apryl Hall.

From Left:  Senior Airmen Christopher Velazquez, Justin Valentine, Jake Nixon, Airmen 1st Class Kayla Loftis,  Hannah and Allie Staffen helped rescue a man from a bison attack during a camping trip in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit, N.D. on July 1, 2017. The group assessed the man’s injuries and called for help, all while the bison loomed in the area. (Not pictured: Airman 1st Class Logan Oldenburg)  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Apryl Hall)

From Left: Senior Airmen Christopher Velazquez, Justin Valentine, Jake Nixon, Airmen 1st Class Kayla Loftis, Hannah and Allie Staffen helped rescue a man from a bison attack during a camping trip in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit, N.D. on July 1, 2017. The group assessed the man’s injuries and called for help, all while the bison loomed in the area. (Not pictured: Airman 1st Class Logan Oldenburg) (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Apryl Hall)

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- The beautiful landscape of the north unit in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was a site to behold. The weather was perfect, the campfire was crackling and the s’mores were sweet. Fourth of July weekend had officially kicked off for the group of close-knit outdoor enthusiasts.

Sharing marshmallows and laughs, the group of seven Airmen from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota had not a care in the world. Nothing could ruin their much-needed break from the grind of military life. They were free as birds. Then suddenly, they were pulled out of their euphoric states when they heard a scream for help.

“By the third time hearing this guy, we knew it was serious,” said Senior Airman Christopher Velazquez, 705th Munitions Squadron support technician. “Once we realized there was an actual person being sincere who needed help, we just ran. I had a good idea of where it was coming from because I had camped there before.”

The group tore down the dirt road toward the man’s pleading cries. Flashes of jumbled words flooded their heads. Help. Bleeding. Attack.

“I heard ‘blood’ and ‘attack’ so I took my concealed-carry weapon out instantly,” Velazquez said. “I felt like I could protect myself and instantly became worried about protecting this guy’s life too.”

After an estimated half mile of running, the Airmen found themselves within 150 feet of the man, when one word caused them all to stop dead in their tracks.

“I heard the word just as my flashlight caught its eyes,” Velazquez said. “Bison.”

The wounded man had climbed up a small rock formation to get away from the angered animal. That left him stuck, with the bison waiting below. The Airmen contemplated their options, knowing they didn’t want to harm the animal, but unsure how much time the man had before his injuries became catastrophic.

“I was scared,” Velazquez said. “I was thinking about proper use of force. Do I just kill this animal and suffer all the consequences? I really didn’t want to, but at the same time this guy is non-stop screaming for help. I was torn on the right thing to do. I was balancing a man’s life with a bison’s.”

While the group hastily discussed what to do, they knew they had to call for help immediately. That posed another problem.

“I was starting to stress because I couldn’t find cell phone service,” said Allie Staffen, 91st Missile Maintenance Squadron facilities maintenance technician. “I didn’t know how much time we had, so I thought if I don’t find it soon, I’ll have to run back to the car and drive to find it.”

The moment Staffen turned to run back to camp, she caught a signal and immediately dialed 9-1-1.

“It was the clearest one-bar service I had ever had!” Staffen said. “I don’t know how it worked, but so thankful it did.”

While Staffen relayed the information to the emergency operator, relieved she camped there often and was familiar with the area, the rest of the group did everything they could think to get the bison to move away from the man. A group of campers and hikers had also formed, putting even more pressure on the situation.

“There was just chaos,” Velazquez said. “Everyone was yelling, it was stressful. I tried to stay calm and do the right thing.”

Velazquez decided to fire his weapon into the ground, to scare the bison away. Instead, the animal started toward the group. Worried they were its next victims, they all piled into a nearby car for safety. After a few minutes, the bison suddenly turned and walked off into the darkness.

The group shot out of the car and up the rocks to the injured man. They found a deep gash, almost to the bone, on the back of his leg. The man was delirious due to a significant amount of blood loss. Working together, the group applied pressure and bandaged the wound with a shirt. They picked the man up and helped him down to the car they had piled in moments before.

“I felt so relieved when we got him in that car,” Velazquez said. “Before he was in it, it was unknown. Are we going to get him in time or are things going to get worse? My questions were answered right when we got him in that car.”

Still on the phone with the 911 operator, Staffen explained the man was safely in a car and on his way to meet the ambulance, which was just pulling into the park. The man was going to be okay.

“Everyone’s adrenaline was rushing, but we were really relieved that everything worked out and we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” Staffen said. “I’m really glad I was with a group of Airmen out there because we all jumped to the call and knew what we had to do. We had each other’s backs.”

The group returned to camp and continued to enjoy their holiday weekend. The campfire had died. The s’mores were cold. But the feeling of saving a life made them feel freer than the beautiful open plains of northern North Dakota.
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