Sgt. 1st Class Bowie Daniel Hall was inside the crumpled car, trying to stop the blood that was flowing from the driver’s head, when he felt something down by his boots.
“One of my legs was oriented toward the engine, and I felt this liquid dripping on me, and I thought, ‘I sure hope that’s not gasoline,’” he said. “Then I thought that, if that is gasoline, it’s probably too late for me anyway.”
Nearly two decades with the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard has conditioned Hall to be poised and proactive under pressure. While most people choose to keep a safe distance from danger, such as a gruesome car wreck, he runs toward it — with a plan.
“In those moments,” said Hall, one of 11 veterans and service members being featured in the La Crosse Tribune’s Stories of Honor series, “you’re just trying to trust your training and make quick decisions.”
Hall does not come from a traditional military family, nor has he always looked cut out to be a soldier.
Growing up in Winona, he earned a reputation as a partier and a mediocre student, he said.
He dreamed of going on adventures, though his job as a lifeguard didn’t offer much action — “mostly telling kids not to run,” he said.
Whenever he could, he’d take his pickup out to Colorado so he could hike, bike and get into trouble.
In 2001, at age 17, he decided to enlist. In 2003 and 2004, Hall spent seven months in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq and five more months in Baghdad, serving as a military police officer. Still, he saw little action.
Back in the United States, Hall spent time as an intern with the House of Representatives before working several years in finance and economic development.
But medicine was his true passion.
He learned the basics during his military training, in a class focused on responding to cases of sexual assault. As he dove deeper into the field, becoming a combat medic, Hall realized he was not made squeamish by blood or needles, a common reason for washing out.
“I looked at it as science instead of something I should be afraid of, and I just said: ‘Wow. This is incredible,’” Hall said. “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a doctor.”
Serving as a medic at military rifle ranges, Hall dealt mostly with soldiers who were dehydrated or suffering from boot blisters.
In medical school in Uganda — Hall just finished his second year, with four remaining — he helped treat a young woman who had fainted in the middle of class.
But his shining moment came in April, when he was on his way to a best soldier competition at Fort Knox in Kentucky.
The school bus carrying Hall and a dozen other soldiers groaned to a halt, and Hall, his nose buried in one of his textbooks, heard someone shout.
“They said something like, ‘We gotta go!’ and the first thing I see is this wreck,” Hall said. “I always carry a mini first aid kit with me, so I’m running toward the vehicle and scanning for danger — any leakage, any people inside the vehicle. The first sign of life was this bloody hand, grasping out.”
Hall spent the next several minutes — he is not certain how long — working to keep the driver alive.
He was able to crawl far enough inside the vehicle to see that the woman was frightened, disoriented and bleeding from her head.
In the minutes before firefighters and paramedics could arrive, Hall used quick-clot combat gauze to dress the woman’s wounds, applying pressure to slow the bleeding.
With the help of another soldier, Spc. Christopher Mechall, Hall stabilized the woman’s head and neck, even as the mystery liquid pooled by his feet.
“But you’re not really thinking about that,” he said. “You’re thinking about the patient.”
When reinforcements came, Hall crawled out and let “the real experts” use the Jaws of Life to cut open the vehicle and pull the woman out, he said.
With that, the story ends — at least Hall’s part in it.
In typical military fashion, he was whisked away to the next thing, to the competition at Fort Knox.
“It was like: ‘All right. Good job,’” Hall said. “It’s what we do.”
He has not heard from the woman in the weeks since the rescue, though a state trooper later told him she would be all right.
There might well have been a different ending had Hall’s bus not pulled up. But don’t call him a hero.
“I happened to be in the right place, at the right time” — and with the right training.