The day before Thanksgiving, Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Cruz and his wife were leaving MacDill Air Force Base to go to a co-worker’s turkey fry in St. Petersburg.
But on the drive off-base, the aerospace medical technician with the 6th Medical Operations Squadron saw something in the road that would interrupt the family’s plans and leave a lasting impression.
"I was driving northbound on Dale Mabry when I saw something in the road on the southbound side," Cruz said.
It turned out to be an 18-month-old boy, face down in the middle of the road. Cruz’s Air Force training as a nurse kicked in.
"I was in the middle of a conversation with my wife when I told her there was a little boy in the middle of the road," said Cruz, 27, who has been in the flying branch for five years. "I pulled over, put the car in park, put the hazards on, jumped out and ran over to him."
Before reaching the child, who was in the outside lane, Cruz stopped traffic, which was until that point continuing to flow past.
The boy, who was face down, wasn’t responsive by the time Cruz reached him. And there was blood coming out of his mouth.
"He had no pulse," Cruz said. "So I turned him over, then opened up his airway."
Cruz didn’t perform CPR or chest compressions, but he did rub the boy’s chest to stimulate breathing and put his head back to make sure there was nothing in his mouth.
The efforts paid off. The boy came to.
"His pulse returned at this point. I did an assessment to make sure he was not severely injured. I wanted to get him out of the road."
Cruz picked the boy up and walked him over to the sidewalk.
That’s when he saw what had happened: About 40 feet was a car and people helping the rest of the boy’s family. His mother was walking with her children, the boy in her arms, when the car hit them. The driver stopped and called 911.
About 15 minutes later, paramedics arrived on scene and took the boy to the hospital.
"I gave them a brief rundown rundown of the symptoms. I told them he was going in and out of consciousness and that I kept making sure he was awake. His pupils looked like he had some kind of brain injury. I later came to find out he had brain bleeding."
Cruz never learned the family’s identity.
But a Tampa Police Department report identifies the injured child as Noah Spicola, 18 months, another injured child as Jordan Williams, 5, the mom as Cassandra Marie Spicola, 29, and the driver, who was not charged in connection with the incident, as Thang Phu, 35.
Spicola and her two children were taken to a local hospital, according to police. She and Noah Spicola suffered serious injuries.
"I was just glad I had the ability to do something," Cruz said. "I had lots of training in the military."
Still, Cruz never had to respond to any real-life emergency while in uniform.
He received an achievement medal and heaps of praise from the Air Force.
The impact from the encounter spread to his family.
"When we got home, my 2-year-old girl Madelyn, who was with us, didn’t want to leave my side," Cruz said. "She didn’t see anything and she wasn’t traumatized. She wanted to take care of the little boy."
She also learned a lesson.
"She won’t go in the road by herself anymore."
The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in ongoing operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 49 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 43 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman