BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Chief Master Sgt. Shelley Cohen was having a great day. Driving back to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, May 24, 2018 from a First Sergeant team-building exercise in Florida, the command chief for the 307th Bomb Wing was thinking about all the great work accomplished there and how it could impact the future of the unit.
All seemed well in her world, but things were about to take a turn for the worse.
From Calm to Chaos
Cohen was running about 15 minutes behind schedule after missing her exit onto Interstate-49 earlier in the trip. Cohen scanned the traffic around her and all seemed normal. Traffic was light, with only a few cars and a semitractor-trailer about 200 feet in front of her. She glanced down at her steering wheel to adjust the cruise control. When she looked up, the calm scene had changed to one of chaos and destruction.
“All I could see was an explosion of glass and metal from the front of the semitrailer and I saw what looked like the pieces of a car fly into the median,” said Cohen. “Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion and I was just trying to process what was happening.”
A car had collided with the semitrailer in front of her, triggering automatic response systems Cohen had developed during more than twenty years in the military.
The Khobar Towers survivor immediately pulled over, dialed 911 and began assessing the situation. The semitrailer had careened off the right side of the interstate. It was laying on its side, but in relatively good condition. The car, however, was destroyed. It was in several pieces on the median. Cohen began bracing herself for the worst.
“My first thought was I was going to see fatalities and I just kept hoping no children were involved” she said.
With that mental check in place, Cohen rushed over to the first person she saw, a young lady laying in the grassy median. Moving on muscle memory gained from years of Self-Aid-Buddy-Care training , Cohen immediately began telling her everything would be okay, even as she assessed her wounds. As they spoke, Cohen learned the accident victim’s name was Amy Hesni.
“I was speaking with Amy, trying to determine her injuries, when she told me her son, Matt, and husband, Jason, had been in the car,” said Cohen.
Scanning the scene, Cohen could see that four-year-old Matt was already being held and comforted by another driver who had stopped to help. Miraculously, he was completely unhurt.
However, Jason, who had been driving, was still unaccounted for.
“Amy told me to please check on her husband,” said Cohen. “She told me he’d had spinal surgery a few months before and was still in the car”.
Looking back at the remains of the vehicle, Cohen’s heart sank. Jason was trapped in the crushed vehicle, physically unable to escape the wreckage. By that time, others had come over to help Amy, so Cohen rushed to help Jason.
She kneeled down by the blown-out driver’s side window and began to examine Jason’s wounds. He was only partially coherent and Cohen was concerned about keeping him still in case he had a spinal injury.
She began to speak with him in a comforting tone, telling him he’d be okay and to remain still. Instead, Jason moved to look at her, exposing a large wound on the inside of his right bicep. His brachial artery had been cut and he was spurting blood.
“I knew from my training that his wound needed a tourniquet or he was not going to live very long,” she said.
Military members know they can use pieces of their uniform to improvise tourniquets if a real one is not available. However, Cohen was dressed in civilian clothes, so that was not an option.
Looking around, she noticed a GPS laying in the back seat with a power cord attached to it. Grabbing the cord, Cohen squeezed into the crushed passenger side of the car and tied it above the wound, stopping the worst of the blood flow.
Unable to stop the flow of blood completely and with no other resources available, she once again fell back on her SABC training, applying pressure with her bare hands to completely stop the bleeding.
The doctors who treated Jason later emphasized the importance of Cohen’s quick thinking and readiness.
“They told me if she had not improvised that tourniquet, I would not have made it,” said Jason. “I was just losing too much blood.”
Jason was only coherent in fits and spells and Cohen had to occupy his mind so he wouldn’t move too much and potentially aggravate his spine or go into shock.
“It was pretty obvious he had a serious concussion and he would get anxious and try to move around,” she said. “So I just kept talking to him in a conversational tone, trying to keep him calm, realizing if he went into shock, there was no way to get him out of the car and treat it.”
Cohen kept compression on the wound until ground and air paramedics eventually arrived and took over. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to leave Jason’s side. She stayed with him, keeping him calm and assuring him that Amy and Matt were okay.
She was even able to find Amy’s phone and call Jason’s mother to let her know what had happened, and that he was alive and getting help. That simple call proved to be almost as traumatic as the accident itself.
“Jason’s mom thought I was Amy, so I had to explain who I was and what had happened,” said Cohen. “I told her they were alive and that I was looking at Amy and Matt and sitting with Jason.”
Jason, realizing what was happening, began calling out to speak to his mother. Concerned he may go into shock or further injure himself, Cohen thought it best to keep the phone from Jason and serve as the mediator of communication between the two.
“That was a difficult decision to make because no matter what age you are, when something bad happens, you want your mom,” said Cohen. “But I just remember calling my own mother after the Khobar Towers bombing to tell her I was okay, hearing her crying and thinking how emotional that was for me.”
By this time, firefighters arrived and were able to remove Jason from the car using the Jaws of Life. He, Amy and Matt were whisked off to local hospitals for treatment.
After speaking with accident investigators, Cohen was finally able to leave the scene. Tired, dirty and bloodied, she drove two more hours before reaching home. But fatigue and dirt were the last things on her mind. She was determined to follow up and make sure all was okay with the family.
Cohen’s schedule for the next few days was hectic, so she focused on her job. But, the former first sergeant kept thinking about the family she helped to save on I-49. She wished for the chance to explain to Jason’s mother why she kept them apart during the phone conversation.
“I felt the need to apologize to Jason and his mother,” said Cohen. “I wanted them to know it wasn’t anything malicious, that it was a deliberate attempt to save both of them from what I had gone through.”
By Friday night after the incident, Cohen was a self-proclaimed “mess”, wondering if they were okay.
“I couldn’t sleep, I kept second guessing myself; wondering if I could have done more,” she said. So, finally I reached out to Jason on Facebook Messenger and told him who I was and that I’d been thinking of the family.”
That gesture started a great friendship. After some surgeries and healing, the Hesni’s invited Cohen and her husband to visit them last Father’s Day. To her surprise, Jason had invited his extended family to meet the person that made the day possible.
“To meet the lady that saved my life and be surrounded by family was the greatest Father’s Day gift I ever received,” he said. Shelley is such a great person, it felt like I had known her for years.”
Cohen and the Hesni’s talk regularly and are hoping to get together during the holidays.
While Cohen was happy to help the family in their time of need, she insists her actions during the wreck were not extraordinary.
“What I did was nothing more than any other member of the military would have done in that situation,” she insists. “I was just in the right place at the right time to help.”
Jason has a little different take on the situation. While he believes Cohen’s missed turn earlier in the trip created the opportunity for her to help, the situation also called for the right kind of person.
“I was so fortunate to have such a kind, generous and good person with that kind of training to be there,” he said. “She is just amazing.”