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NEWS | Aug. 14, 2012

Louisiana Air National Guard Airmen react quickly, save the lives of three boaters

By 1st Lt. Alex Juan, U.S. Air Force 159th Fighter Wing

NEW ORLEANS - It was supposed to be a relaxing day for members of the Louisiana Air National Guard's 159th Security Forces Squadron. During down time while taking part in training exercises at Volk Field, Wis., several members of the squadron rented a boat to spend time out on nearby Castle Rock Lake.

They anchored their boat near an island to fish and relax and, said squadron members, after a few hours, another boat with a group of women celebrating a bachelorette party anchored up near them.

One of the women jumped into the shallow water and quickly surfaced covered in blood and screaming in pain. A second person on the boat also jumped into the water, but surfaced motionless.

"My first thought was that this isn't good," said Senior Airman Raenell M. Dubroc. "I honestly thought she might be dead."

In total, seven Airmen rushed to render aid to the woman. Tech. Sgt. Edward J. Griffin, a trained medic, was credited with creative, quick thinking by ensuring the victim was stabilized and calm throughout the rescue.

"We used her arms to stabilize her spine, rolled her over and lifted her onto the boat," said Griffin, adding that a life vest was used as a make shift cervical collar and other floatation devices were used to stabilize her body.

Griffin then assessed the patient's condition.

"I conducted a neurological assessment and knew it was critical to get medical attention immediately," said Griffin, who, from his responsibilities during the training event, knew there was limited medical response in the area. He said the boat ride seemed to take a long time as they were trying to keep the ride slow and steady to not further injure the woman.

Griffin stayed with the patient as others in her party piloted the boat to shore. Squadron members followed behind in their own boat.

Senior Airman Steven Mehrtens, 159th SFS fire team leader, from Metairie, La., spoke

During the ride to shore, another member of the bachelorette party fell from the boat while calling for local emergency response. That individual suffered a head injury in the fall and was also rescued from the water by squadron members.

The Airmen said it was their training that kicked in and helped their response that day.

"It's not something that I think about on a daily basis … how all of this training makes me a better person, but now that this happened, I am glad that I know how to react," said Senior Airman Jared M Vignes.

The injured woman, Katie Wahl Johnson, fractured two vertebrae in her neck, shattered a third and sustained a spinal cord injury. She was airlifted to the University of Wisconsin Hospital where she underwent a six-hour surgery. She was then sent to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for recovery.

The accident left Johnson paralyzed from the chest down and with partial use of her hands, but she said she is incredibly grateful to the Airmen who she says saved her life.

Meanwhile, Johnson's father, Bill Wahl, tracked down those who helped his daughter on that day. He persistently contacted the training center and recently made contact with the squadron commander.

"I just want to thank them for saving my daughter's life," said Wahl. "The timing of their response, the way they protected her body … it maximized her opportunity to recover, and we are just so grateful."

Johnson and her fiancé, Jeremy Johnson, were married at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

"It was a beautiful wedding," said Wahl, adding that it is still very emotional for him to discuss the events but he is eternally grateful for the quick response of the Airmen.