LINCOLN, Neb. -- Sgt. Heather Springer was about to load an injured soldier onto a litter, just as she had done every day for months, when another soldier tackled her face-first into the Iraqi sand.
Dust popped from the ground around them as a hail of insurgent bullets pounded down.
Suddenly this wasn't like all of the previous missions.
"I had little momentary pause where I was like . . . 'What the heck do I do?'" Springer, 24, recalled Monday. "Then I remembered. There's a wounded soldier here. He needs help, and that's your job."
Had Springer been accepted to nursing school on her first try, she may have been studying in a library last July instead of scrambling on a dusty battlefield in Iraq.
Instead, the Lincoln native chose to join the Nebraska Army National Guard as a medic and wound up helping save three seriously injured soldiers despite the fierce firefight.
Her extraordinary performance earned her a Bronze Star with V for Valor and recognition this past weekend by an Army veterans' association as Medic of the Year.
Springer had been serving in Iraq for nearly 11 months when the call came July 15 to her base in Diyala Province. Several soldiers had been wounded by a roadside bomb. And the area was still "hot," in the midst of a firefight.
Springer, an airborne medic on Black Hawk helicopter evacuation teams, had flown nearly daily missions since arriving in Iraq, but never before had she been asked to fly into an ongoing battle.
She didn't truly grasp what she would face that morning until her Black Hawk landed on a dusty road and she had run to the aid of the first soldier, whose legs were crushed below the knees when the bomb hit his vehicle.
That's when the bullets began to fly and she found herself face down in the dust.
After collecting herself, she crawled to the patient, loaded him into the litter and persuaded another soldier to help carry him. They sprinted through the bullets to the Black Hawk.
"I said, 'On the count of three, we'll go. One, two . . .' and on 'two' I just pull this guy and start running," she said. "I truly ran, and by the grace of God, we made it to the helicopter."
The pilot screamed at her to finish loading so the helicopter could leave, but a second patient was on the battlefield with an abdominal bullet wound. She wouldn't let the pilot take off.
The soldier's comrades rushed him to the helicopter, and as quickly as Springer could get aboard and strap him in, the aircraft lifted off. Miraculously, none of the insurgents' bullets struck the noisy Black Hawk as it rose into the air and sped away.
Soon after Springer's team had unloaded the two patients at Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, another call came through. A third soldier, suffering a severe concussion, needed an airlift from the same scene.
Stomach churning, still shaking from her earlier encounter, Springer jumped back into the helicopter and flew straight back to the battlefield.
The enemy had been driven away and no bullets rang down as they loaded their patient.
Springer returned to Nebraska with her unit, the 2-135th General Support Aviation Battalion, in August. This semester is her first as a nursing student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Lincoln campus.
Despite the challenges and the danger, she said she wouldn't take back her decision to join the Guard and serve in Iraq."It's such a different part of the brain I have to use now for sitting around in classes and studying, compared to when I was on a mission full of adrenaline. But I'm so grateful to have had this under my belt before going through nursing school."