CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
On a cloudy, humid afternoon in May 2022, U.S. Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Jefferson Ortiz was driving with his wife on Highway 43, through the small town of Vanceboro, back to their home in New Bern. Ortiz noticed that traffic in front of him was coming to a halt. He looked into a field where many people gathered around something on the ground.
Ortiz’s combat instincts kicked in. He immediately pulled over, told his wife to dial 911, and moved toward the crowd of people.
“Everything that I saw led me to believe that someone needed help,” said Ortiz. “And that the people who were there did not understand, or were not comfortable with, providing that help. I figured that if I could make my way over there, see what was going on, and assess the situation to see if there was anything that I could do to help somebody...I wanted to do that.”
What Ortiz did not know was that a man, who moments before was checking his mail, had been hit by a car going more than 60 mph while he was walking up his driveway, launching him into a nearby field.
The tall, wiry Marine with full-sleeve tattoos on his arms made his way through the crowd of spectators and found a man lying face down in the grass. One of the man’s legs was mangled, turned inward, and showed signs of severe hemorrhaging.
“Everyone was telling me he’s dead,” said Ortiz. He asked the bystanders if anyone had checked for a pulse and they all responded with ‘no.’
Ortiz got down on his knees and carefully turned the injured man on his back while ensuring he kept the man’s spine immobile to prevent any further injury. He quickly noticed that the injured man had suffered an open-femur fracture. Ortiz grabbed the man’s wrist to check for a pulse.
The man’s skin was cold to the touch. Ortiz then opened the man’s eyelids to look for any kind of reaction in his pupils.
Again, nothing – no signs of life.
Ortiz told a bystander to kneel down and hold the injured man’s head steady to immobilize the spine. While this was happening, Ortiz put his fingers on the man’s neck and found a very weak pulse. There was hope.
He began going through the fundamental procedures every Marine is trained to perform when treating a casualty: stop the bleeding, start the breathing, protect the wound, and treat for shock.
Ortiz assessed the full damage of the leg wound so he could stop the bleeding. Ortiz thought, “I need to put a tourniquet on this leg as soon as possible.” He took off the man’s belt and secured it around the leg above the open wound to stop the flow of blood. The belt wasn’t strong enough so another belt was needed. He told one of the bystanders to give him his belt and to hand him a stick. Ortiz used the donated belt and stick to create a makeshift tourniquet that stopped the profuse bleeding.
Ortiz also noticed the man had severely labored, shallow breathing and blood coming out of his mouth. He stuck a finger in the man’s mouth to remove any obstructions in the airway. Ortiz found that the man’s entire set of front teeth had been knocked in from the impact and were settled in his throat. He fished them out, along with some other debris, and the man’s breathing improved to where he was now taking gasps of air.
“We have a chance,” thought Ortiz.
"...Our existence is about more than just winning battles. It’s about recognizing that our place in society is valued because of these things that Marines do." U.S. Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Jefferson Ortiz, an MWSS 271 company first sergeant
He then asked a bystander to take off their shirt and used it to cover the wound on the injured man’s leg to prevent any dirt and debris from contaminating the wound. Minutes later, emergency medical services arrived on the scene. Ortiz assisted them with inserting an IV into the injured man, moving him to a gurney, and loading him into an ambulance.
Fortunately, the injured man survived his life-threatening injuries, thanks in part to the actions of Ortiz.
“For me, this is just business,” said Ortiz. “I was not concerned as to whether or not he was going to live. I just wanted to give him the opportunity. It was really cool to hear later on that the guy ended up making it through the first 24 hours and that eventually he lived. He was able to survive that. That was rewarding.”
The business of saving lives is nothing new for Ortiz. The 38-year-old Marine has spent almost half of his life fighting in and preparing for war. The life-saving procedures he performed on the injured man were the same ones he performed on many of his fellow Marines in the heat of battle in places such as Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. The battle-hardened Ortiz thrives in situations where life is on the line.
Ortiz was born in Colombia, immigrated to the United States when he was five years old, and grew up in Miami, Florida. He wanted to go to college after graduating from Coral Park High School in 2003, however he could not afford to pay tuition, so he began working at a pet store. One day, a sharply dressed Marine Corps recruiter stopped in to buy pet food and chatted with Ortiz. He says the recruiter sold him on becoming a Marine. He liked the idea of taking on a challenge, and he figured the Marine Corps would give him the greatest challenge and more rewarding challenge between the armed services.
“There was no debate for me as to what service I wanted to join and what job I wanted to do, which was to be an infantryman,” recalled Ortiz.
He arrived at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina for “recruit training” in September 2003 and graduated thirteen weeks later. Ortiz then attended the 59-day infantry training course at the School of Infantry – East and subsequently checked into his first unit, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (3/8), at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
During the next two years, Ortiz and the Marines of 3/8 would deploy to Iraq twice, resulting in 25 Marine casualties and roughly 350 wounded. These young men were a part of a generation of Americans in the 2000s that grew up in a time of war, experiencing multiple combat deployments, often missing holidays and important events with friends and family.
“You had to grow up quick back then,” said Ortiz. “You had to figure out very quickly that you just needed to be an adult.”
During his second deployment to Iraq, Ortiz found himself engaged in a deadly battle that would define the rest of his career. To him, no other deployment, duty assignment, or mission, would have as much importance as the battle of Ramadi in 2006. For eight months, coalition forces fought al-Qaida militants who represented one of the last significant holdouts of Iraqi insurgent resistance. It was one of the last major battles during Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the costliest in terms of human life. Nearly 100 Americans lost their lives during the battle.
“Ramadi is when things got turned up to volume level 100,” said Ortiz. “In 2006, if you wanted to ‘get some,’ Ramadi is where you wanted to be.
“It was the physical and visual representation on a daily basis of a three-dimensional war. We had to step up our game and constantly be 10 steps ahead of the enemy. Any instance where you let your guard down, whether it was your security posture or your violence of action while you were out on any given mission, could end up in either a Marine (wounded in action) or (killed in action). And we took a lot of those. The sniper threat in that city at the time was just outrageous.”
One of these snipers shot one of Ortiz’s Marines in the head as he was on a rooftop providing overwatch for Iraqi soldiers on patrol. Lance Cpl. Richard Castletine had just shot an insurgent who was planting a roadside bomb when his head snapped forward, as if he had been hit with a rock. The bullet struck the front of his Kevlar helmet, ricocheted inside the helmet, lodging a fragment four centimeters long into the back of his neck. Ortiz dragged him down the stairs of the two-level Iraqi house, bandaged the wound and loaded him onto a stretcher.
Unfortunately, the streets surrounding the house were too narrow to allow an armored vehicle to transport Castletine to a hospital and armed insurgents were everywhere. Ortiz and his Marines were not going to let that stop them from getting their wounded comrade to safety. They decided they were going to shoot their way out while carrying Castletine.
“We were very aggressive,” said Ortiz. “We refused to allow the enemy or the terrain to dictate how we were going to conduct operations. That was the attitude.”
The Marines laid down covering fire and carried Castletine more than six blocks while enduring machine gun fire and various small-arms fire from the enemy. During this grueling movement, an Iraqi soldier, who was helping them, stepped on a landmine, which blew his leg off. Now they had to carry two people to safety. The brave Iraqi soldier would eventually die from his wounds. Castletine would survive his wounds and rejoin Ortiz’s squad a few weeks later.
“When you have an experience like Ramadi, which essentially becomes what we expect after practicing to do your job, training over and over again, that’s the pinnacle of what we strive to accomplish,” said Ortiz. “It opens up all these other doors of stuff that you deal with that you never even would’ve entertained beyond the glory of combat.
“I always go back to Ramadi for many things that you see Marines going through, not just because of the combat experience. What it does to you as a Marine. What it does to you as a person. What it does to you as a professional. That deployment exposed me to a multitude of things that allows me to understand a multitude of things that go beyond running around with a rifle just hooking and jabbing.”
Fast-forward 16 years and Ortiz found himself providing life-saving care to a civilian who had just been hit by a car. Calm, yet determined, he provided the tried-and-true combat life-saving procedures to someone he did not even know. It was a situation similar to ones he had experienced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But this time there were no al-Qaida militants firing AK-47s at him, and no landmines to maneuver around, not that it would’ve mattered to him. He was in his element.
“(Combat) maximizes who we are within our framework,” said Ortiz. “Sometimes we don’t realize this as Marines, but regardless of rank or (military occupational specialty), Marines are bred for one thing and one thing only and that’s to go to combat. When we don’t have that, it’s like you don’t have an identity.”
The veteran of nearly 20 years of service has come a long way since working in a pet shop in Miami. Ortiz served in multiple infantry units, endured five combat deployments, served as a combat instructor twice and as a mountain-warfare instructor. He climbed the ranks from private to first sergeant and currently serves as the first sergeant of the Airfield Operations Company of Marine Wing Support Squadron (MWSS) 271. The squadron is a subordinate unit of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the aviation combat element of II Marine Expeditionary Force. They provide all essential aviation ground support to fixed-wing squadrons of the wing.
Despite his humility, and to his surprise, his commanding officer awarded him with the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal for his actions. The medal is awarded to Marines and Sailors who distinguish themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service.
Ortiz believes his actions were in keeping with the expectations of all Marines, and he hopes his Marines carry the legacy that was given to them those who have gone before them.
“I want them on a daily basis to be the physical representation of what the American public expects out of the Marine Corps because our existence is about more than just winning battles,” said Ortiz. “It’s about recognizing that our place in society is valued because of these things that Marines do. Let the American people know there is a reason we have a Marine Corps.”