MAHOMET – At about 2 a.m. Wednesday, Army Sgt. Joshua Huddleston heard the scream of wheels and a crash.
He and his brother, Joe, stepped outside into a cold, windy night and saw a flashlight in the distance. Joe went inside, figuring someone would call the fire department. Josh Huddleston ran toward it.
With no coat or gloves, Huddleston sprinted up and across the grassy berm near his parents' home in Candlewood Estates and through a windbreak of trees. He ran across Prairieview Road, to the corner where it intersects with Golfview Drive.
He found a pickup truck bent around a tree at the intersection's corner.
A volunteer firefighter was already on the scene. Huddleston found the driver, 25-year-old Michael Strope, and stabilized his head while opening his airway so Strope could breathe. He assisted as other members of the Corn Belt Fire Protection District responded.
Strope was in critical condition at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana on Wednesday night. The crash killed his passenger, Justin Diehl, 26, of Mahomet.
Strope, a Bellflower resident, was ticketed for driving under the influence, said Champaign County Sheriff's Lt. Allen Jones. Strope was airlifted from the scene.
As Huddleston tells it, he didn't have a choice about responding to the accident. As an Army medic, he's trained in trauma – how to focus, how to stay calm.
"It's an obligation," Huddleston said Wednesday afternoon, "to go ahead and try to help this person."
He's home for the holidays with family, and was originally supposed to go back to the Washington, D.C., area last Friday. He'll depart this Friday, instead.
Huddleston served 15 months in Iraq, tending to everyone from children injured by bombs to soldiers who had been in vehicle crashes. He returned to the U.S. last February.
Now stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Huddleston arranges transportation for and unloads the most gravely injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, who go to the center after a stop at a base in Germany. He's going to school to become a physician's assistant.
It's rewarding, he said. He enjoys helping people, he said, and it's work that makes a difference. He enlisted as a 25-year-old, and he said he'll probably be deployed again to either Iraq or Afghanistan. He described his time in Iraq as a growing experience, although not a fun one.
"It doesn't bother me," Huddleston said. "That's my job. I signed up in a time of war."
One of his first experiences after taking EMT training in 2004 was coming upon an accident in rural Mahomet. He reacted on instinct, helping a woman injured in the accident. She later died.
Any time that happens, Huddleston said, he wonders if there's anything else he could have done. He said he was praying for Strope and for both men's families and friends.
The accident site is sobering. Flowers and the grillwork from the truck surround the base of the tree. Tacked up on the tree are notes addressed to Mr. Diehl – and a well-loved stuffed animal.
Huddleston's father, Roger Huddleston, said the whole family took some time to reflect, to pray for those involved and to count its own blessings. It's a benchmark for the family, Roger Huddleston said, a time in your life when you remember exactly where you were when it happened. He's just glad that his son was able to respond in a way that made a difference. "He was in the right place at the right time," Roger Huddleston said.
Josh Huddleston isn't looking for recognition, and doesn't say anything about winning several medals in Iraq. His father is the one who mentions those. Josh Huddleston describes it as just part of his job, as was responding to the Wednesday morning crash.
"I just knew that I had to go ahead and help," Josh Huddleston said. "That's who I am. I gotta help people. That's my job."