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NEWS | Jan. 10, 2023

Through the Fire and Flame: Airman awarded Airman’s Medal for heroic actions

By Senior Airman Joseph Morales Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs

In the heat of the summer of July 2021, a black delivery van crashed into an 18-wheeler on Interstate 295 and erupted in flames. The van then swerved into a guard rail and the driver slumped unconscious into the passenger seat. The airbags deployed and the fire grew, spreading to the nearby shrubbery.

Just a few car lengths behind the chaos was Master Sgt. Christopher Isler, who joined the Air Force in June of 2006. One of the Air Force’s core values is Service Before Self, and while he didn’t know it at the time, Ishler became the walking epitome of it on that July day.  

“It was like something out of a movie,” said Ishler, who was traveling home with his wife and kids. “I remember seeing the van bounce up when it made contact with the 18-wheeler, and in an instant it burst into flames. Immediately, the van ran directly into the guardrail and continued to slide into the grass.”

Taking quick action, he immediately pulled over and told his wife to call 911.

“I jumped out of the car and started running toward the van,” Ishler said. “I assessed how much danger I was potentially in and how much danger this person might potentially be in. I called out to the person inside and there was no answer.”

The front of the van leading up to the doors were crushed in, preventing access, and Ishler continued to call out to the driver.

“I tried to pry the door but at a certain point I couldn’t get it to open more, so I kicked the rest of the door open,” said Ishler. “After cutting away the airbag, I was finally able to see the driver tangled in his seatbelt and falling into the passenger side. He was a fair amount larger than me, and I could see that he was completely unconscious.”

The heat intensified as the fire continued to spread throughout the interior of the car and surrounding area.

“I had to cut his seatbelt away to pull him out of the vehicle,” said Ishler. “Once I got him out of the vehicle, I carried him as far away from danger as I could. I remember looking down, looking at my feet and his feet, and I’m just focused on trying to keep moving forward.”

After Ishler dragged the driver a safe distance from the burning scene, he assessed the driver, noting severe trauma to his face and body.

“I was focused on trying to get him conscious, doing everything I could like elevating his feet, talking to him, trying to get him coherent again,” said Ishler. “He eventually came to and I was able to ask him questions. I wanted to assess his ability to recall information but then he started going into shock.”

While assisting the victim, Ishler conducted Tactical Combat Casualty Care learned from an Air Commando Field-Skills Course by assessing the driver’s wounds and wellbeing. His training kicked in like clockwork.

“It was all kind of a blur. I got tunnel vision, and the outside world didn’t exist,” said Ishler. “All of my energy and focus were on the driver and trying to identify everything I could, so that when the first responders got there I could tell them, ‘this is everything I was able to find and this is exactly what I did up to this point.’”

First responders arrived at the scene shortly after Ishler’s actions, where he returned to his onlooking family.

“What happened almost didn’t feel real, almost like an out of body experience,” said Ishler. “All of those feelings of fear, nervousness, and concern - I wasn’t feeling for me, it was for the other person. I was worried about him not making it, the severity of the trauma from the accident. When I returned to the car, my wife grabbed me and she asked, ‘do you know what you just did?’ And I didn’t know. It hadn’t hit me and I was still processing.”

Ishler carried on his normal routine and attended NCO Academy a week after the accident. It wasn’t until he received the police report that Ishler discovered the fate of the driver.

“The report could not have been more vague,” said Ishler. “But I did some of my own digging and eventually talked to the officer that placed the report. I found out that the driver indeed lived. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility of him passing away, so this news gave me a little bit of peace.”

Throughout his military career, Ishler said he’s had constant gravitation towards helping others. While stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, Ishler acted as a bystander intervention trainer for sexual assault and prevention response and suicide prevention.

“My whole life I’ve had a lot of those sort of experiences where I see something happen and I run to it,” said Ishler, who was recently selected to be a first sergeant. “Life after the military, I see myself becoming a social worker. I want to be able to work with people specifically that have endured trauma like this. Helping others is how I cope.”

At Joint Base MDL, Ishler’s traditional job is serving as a section chief within the 305th Maintenance Squadron. He previously worked as a command chief executive, where he closely worked with Chief Master Sgt. David Kolcun, 305th Air Mobility Wing command chief.

“Christopher is the epitome of a servant leader,” said Kolcun. “He’s quiet, confident, and enthusiastically committed to the growth of our enlisted corps. Chris deeply cares for the well-being of others and has devoted countless hours both personally and professionally to helping those around him with the challenges they may be facing. His selection as a first sergeant was no surprise.”

Through his act of heroism in July 2021, Ishler was awarded the Airman’s medal, an award that is awarded to service members who have distinguished themselves by a heroic act, usually at the voluntary risk of his or her life but not involving actual combat.

“Airmen who run to the sound of the gun, rendering assistance to those who are suffering should be recognized for their selfless act of compassion and humanity,” said Kolcun.  “Decorations such as the Airman’s Medal offer an opportunity for us to publicly show appreciation for their unselfish acts of valor. With the awarding of this medal, we can highlight Ishler’s true character and warrior heart. It’s important to take time to pause, applaud his efforts, and celebrate his act of heroism to save a stranger’s life. Ishler is a positive example of what it means to serve.”