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37th TRW Airman-In-Training saves fellow trainee's life

By Rachel Kersey | 37th Training Wing Public Affairs | April 30, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —

Airman Antonio E. Lopez received the Air Force Achievement Medal for outstanding achievement April 23 for performing the Heimlich maneuver and saving a fellow Airman’s life.

Lopez, a Career Enlisted Aviator in technical training, was awarded the medal during a ceremony held in a hangar against the backdrop of a C-130 Hercules aircraft. All attendees wore masks and practiced social distancing as they honored their fellow service member. 

At 11 a.m., April 15, the Airborne Missions Systems Operator Class 20012 students brought their To-Go meals from the dining room to the classroom, where they began eating their lunch. As the meal commenced, the classmate seated beside Lopez, Airman Terrell Long, began choking on his food and gasping for air. 

Long attempted to clear his airway many times and also tried to wash the obstruction down with orange juice, but the food was so firmly lodged in his throat that his juice escaped up and through his nose. At this point, it was obvious to all watching that Long was not able to clear his airway on his own.

Lopez immediately stood up and began performing the Heimlich maneuver. According to Lopez, it was more instinct than logical reasoning.

“It was a pure adrenaline reaction,” Lopez said. “I saw him having trouble, and I didn’t really understand what I needed to do. I just started with the Heimlich, and it turns out that’s exactly what I needed to do. I didn’t really think. I just acted.”

The abdominal thrusting removed the obstruction and cleared Long’s airway, enabling him to breathe and saving his life. Lopez said he learned the Heimlich maneuver in a course at community college in 2015 before he joined the Air Force. 

Long and Lopez have been together since their days at Basic Military Training, where they were in the same flight. 

“He’s been right next to me. He picked the bed right across from me,” Lopez said. “He was there through everything, and we’re on the same airframe now.”

They will both be working on the E-3 airframe and are both Airborne Mission Systems Operator 3-level graduates. They have recently completed in-processing at the same location, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. They’ve had each other’s back since the beginning and will continue to have each other’s back in the future, Lopez said.

“This is incredibly rare for a student to receive a decoration,” said Maj. Jordan Clark, commander of the 344th Training Squadron, speaking to a group of Airmen at the ceremony. “Don’t let the day get past you without understanding how important and how big of a deal this is for Airman Lopez and our team, as he is part of the family.”

Airman Long pinned the medal on Lopez.

“We got each other,” Lopez said.

“Always,” Long said.