Traumatized Marine ignores doctor’s orders to save injured motorcyclist
May 2, 2008, Buffalo, New York – Others drove past the injured motorcyclist, who lay bleeding to death on the side of Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst on a Monday afternoon last month.
But Jeremy Lepsch, a disabled combat veteran, stopped. He got out of his car and dodged traffic to get to the injured man and place a lifesaving tourniquet on his mangled left leg. Lepsch also realized he had been given a chance to complete some unfinished business he’d left behind in Iraq.
“I remember him saying, ‘I think it’s going to be OK. I’m a U. S. Marine. I’ve seen action,’ ” Jeffrey Wojcik recalled Thursday. “I’m lying there dying, and I felt a calmness come over me. I knew I was in good hands.”
The injured man lost his leg, but medical personnel credited Lepsch with saving his life.
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One of the top officials in the Department of Homeland Security came to Buffalo on Thursday, in part to honor Lepsch, 24, for his heroism April 7.
Wojcik is a federal border officer, and hundreds of his fellow Customs & Border Protection officers were present for the ceremony Thursday in Kleinhans Music Hall.
The recent events were a long way from the agonizing week in 2004 that Lepsch spent in Iraq, waiting to complete his medical evacuation to Germany for treatment of illnesses he had come down with while serving with an anti-terrorism unit in east Africa.
Casualties from roadside bombs and other combat flowed into the two Iraq medical facilities in which Lepsch was placed temporarily. He felt helpless as he watched severely burned soldiers, others with missing limbs and even the bodies of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice pass through these triage centers.
If that wasn’t enough, enemy fire forced the wounded to head for bunkers. Lepsch eventually made it out of Iraq, but with the added burden of the horrors he had seen.
Since then, he has struggled with flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress, making it difficult for him to move on with his life.
But he would like to.
He and his mother, Cheryl Lepsch, have been waging a long battle with the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs to get him admitted to a long-term residential post-traumatic stress treatment program.
In the meantime, Lepsch, who expects to soon be discharged with a military medical retirement from the Marines, has received dozens of prescription medications — enough to fill the kitchen cupboard of his modest North Tonawanda apartment — from the VA and has been advised to avoid stressful situations, such as motor vehicle accidents, because they can trigger the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Wojcik, 38, says he is grateful Lepsch ignored that advice last month.
As he lay bleeding, watching vehicles pass him, Wojcik, also of North Tonawanda, recalled that the driver of the car he collided with stepped from her vehicle and demanded to know how fast he had been driving his motorcycle.
Utility workers nearby tried to calm him. Then Lepsch, who was several vehicles behind the crash scene, arrived and began to perform first aid.
Lepsch said he fought back thoughts of, “Oh no, this isn’t happening,” and realized he had a chance to be of use to another human being in dire need of medical assistance — unlike in Iraq.
One of the utility workers handed Lepsch a belt that he began to tighten around Wojcik’s leg to stop the bleeding, but the belt snapped.
“I was wearing my New York Yankees jersey, and I was going to take it off and use that when Jeff said he was wearing a heavy leather belt,” recalled Lepsch, who looked at Wojcik after Thursday’s ceremony and added, “So, you saved your own life, Jeff.”
When the paramedics arrived and Wojcik was taken away, Lepsch quietly left the crash scene.
For days after that, his mother said, “Jeremy had nightmares that his own legs had been cut off.” Eventually, Lepsch and his mother visited Wojcik in Erie County Medical Center.
They have become close friends and call each other “brothers in arms.”
And on Thursday, that could not have been clearer. Wojcik, seated beside Lepsch, again called him a brother. Lepsch responded by leaning his head toward the shoulder of the man he had saved and said, “We both have a shoulder to lean on now.”
Resting in Lepsch’s lap was the Humanitarian Award, a plaque that he received from Customs & Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham, who praised the young man for his courage while other motorists had driven by.
“At a time when this country is so litigious and everyone is so concerned about being sued . . . Jeremy took that risk. He decided to act,” Basham said.
The overwhelming gratitude Lepsch experienced at the ceremony, he said, now has him thinking that maybe life is starting to turn around for him.