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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Hicks
Sergeant Uses Heimlich Maneuver to Save Choking Airman
By Master Sgt. Ruby Zarzyczny
380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
SOUTHWEST ASIA, Sept. 12, 2007 — An Air Force sergeant used the Heimlich maneuver to save a choking airman's life Sept. 1 at the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing dining facility here.

Staff Sgt. Justin Hicks, a U-2 crew chief deployed from the 9th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., had just worked a 12-hour shift from midnight to noon. Hicks, who is currently assigned to the 99th Aircraft Maintenance Unit here, and Airman 1st Class Alejandro Betancourt, a crew chief deployed from the same unit, were released early from duty and headed to lunch.

The airmen made it to the Oasis dinning facility just as it was opening up. They got their food and sat down at a long table. While they were eating, the tables at the facility filled up. Hicks said he saw a few airmen getting up from the far end of his table, leaving one airman sitting there alone.

"Out of the corner of my eye, I could see an airman trying to get my attention," Hicks said. "I started thinking it was someone I knew. I looked up at him and saw how red his face was, and then I saw drool hanging out of his mouth. He was holding his hands around his neck. I asked the guy if he was OK. He just looked at me and shook his head 'no.'"

Instantly, Hicks thought of the self-aid and buddy care training he had taken prior to deploying. He remembered if people are choking and they can't answer you, they can't breathe. He knew the airman was in serious trouble.

"I jumped up and ran around the table," Hicks said. "I put my arms around him, and gave him two good thrusts. On the second thrust everything came up. It wasn't like the movies where only one little thing pops out of your mouth.

"I did the best I could remember," Hicks said. "I never thought in a million years I would have to use the Heimlich. I never even thought I would see it done."

While Hicks raced around the table, Betancourt continued eating lunch and watching TV.

"I heard Sergeant Hicks say, 'Are you OK?', and I thought he was talking to me," Betancourt said. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm OK' and then I looked at what was happening. I was shocked to see Sergeant Hicks running around the table. I looked over at the dude, his face was cherry red and his lips were blue."

Hicks and Betancourt helped the airman clean up, and then the airman rushed off. They didn't even get his name, they said.

"My adrenaline was pumping pretty fast," Hicks said. "I asked him twice if he was OK because I knew when you administer the Heimlich there is always a chance that you can cause some internal damage. He got out of there pretty fast! I was worried that I might have helped him out of one problem and into a new one."


U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Hicks (left) reviews maintenance completed on a U-2 aircraft with Airman 1st Class Alejandro Betancourt while deployed to a base in Southwest Asia. Hicks saved a choking airman in the Oasis dinning facility Sept. 1. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ruby Zarzyczny

After canvassing the unit the airman was found. He is an airman first class assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. He said he was embarrassed about what happened in the dining facility, but he said he was also very grateful for Hick's actions.

When Hicks and Betancourt returned to duty that night, Betancourt told everyone the story.

"Sergeant Hicks' assessment and response to the incident were just what you'd expect from an airman," said Capt. Randal Hoewt, the 99 AMU officer-in-charge. "When he recognized the problem, his self-aid and buddy care training kicked in. He took action to help his fellow airman, and ensured he was OK."

"Sergeant Hicks' actions saved that young man's life, but he is very humble about it," he said. "He feels that he was fortunate to be in a position to help and believes another airman would have done the same for him."

Last Updated:
09/12/2007, Eastern Daylight Time
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