Specialist Ezra Maes and his two armor crew teammates were jolted awake by their M1A2 Abrams tank as it rolled downhill at nearly 90 mph with them inside. The sheer force of the vehicle hitting an embankment threw Maes from his position, and his right leg was immediately pinned down by the vehicle’s turret gear. In order to save his fellow crew members, he cut off his own leg – and lived.
Following the 2018 incident, the young soldier was amazed at the circumstances that led to his survival. If you ask, he’ll say he came out okay because of a uniform belt, a smart phone, and “shockingly good” cell service. What the 21-year-old fails to mention is the sheer force of will it took for him to stay alive.
A year earlier, the Army had deployed Maes, an armor crewman stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, to Poland in support of a joint training mission called Atlantic Resolve. He was the loader for the main cannon of an M1A2 Abrams tank, a massive 65 ton vehicle known for its heavy armor and lethal firepower.
Exhausted on the second day of a weeklong rotation in Slovakia, he and two other crew members fell asleep in the tank that evening. He was jolted awake a few hours later by the sudden movement of the tank heading downhill.
“I called out to the driver, ‘Step on the brakes!’” Maes said. “But he shouted back that it wasn’t him.”
The parking brake had failed. The crew quickly initiated emergency braking procedures, but the operational systems were unresponsive due to a hydraulic leak.
The tank was now careening down the hill at nearly 90 mph. “We realized there was nothing else we could do and just held on,” Maes said.
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After a few sharp bumps, they crashed into an embankment at full speed. Maes was thrown across the tank, his leg catching in the turret gear. He then felt the full force of the tank turret sliding onto his leg.
His initial thought was his leg was broken. His next thought was he needed to get free so he could assist Sgt. Aechere Crump, the gunner, who was bleeding out from a cut on her thigh. The driver, Pfc. Victor Alamo, was pinned up front with a broken back.
“I pushed and pulled at my leg as hard as I could to get loose, and felt a sharp tear,” Maes said. “I thought I had dislodged my leg, but when I moved away, my leg was completely gone.”
Freed from the pressure of the turret, the blood poured out of his wound at an alarming rate. With other lives on the line, Maes pushed his panic and any thought of pain aside. He pulled himself up and into the back of the tank to grab a tourniquet from the medical kit. Halfway there, he began to feel woozy from the blood loss.
“I knew I was going into shock,” he said. “All I could think about was, no one knows we’re down here.
“Either I step up or we all die.”
Maes began shock procedures on himself — stay calm, keep heart rate down, elevate lower body — and cinched his belt into a makeshift tourniquet to slow down the heavy bleeding. He called out to Crump, who had staunched her own bleeding with a belt tourniquet, to radio for help.
Maes’ heart sank when Crump said the radio wasn’t working.
But then he heard an incredible sound; his cell phone was ringing.
Maes’ phone was the only one that wasn’t broken and the only one with working cell phone service. With one leg cut and the other broken, Crump crawled to reach Maes’ phone and threw it down to him. He unlocked the phone and sent his friend a text. Help was on the way.
His last memory of that location was his sergeant major running up the hill carrying his leg on his shoulder. “I wanted to keep it, see if it could be reattached, but it was pulverized,” Maes recalled.
Maes, who had also broken his pelvis in three places, along with his shoulder and ankle, was rushed to a local hospital – his first helicopter ride – before being flown to Landstuhl, Germany, and then on to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Between an infection he picked up overseas and nearly daily surgeries to fight it, he spent four months in intensive care.
While recuperating, Maes talked to an Army video team.
“If I didn’t help myself, my crew, no one was going to,” said Maes, when he was assigned to the BAMC Warrior Transition Battalion. “I knew I had to do everything I could to survive.”
His efforts worked.
“I feel super lucky,” Maes said. “My crew all does. So many things could have gone wrong. Besides my leg, we all walked away pretty much unscathed.”
Reported by Devon L. Suits, Army News Service