JMU News

'Warrior ethos'

ROTC students, faculty exhibit selflessness, heroism in wake of blast


SUMMARY: In the midst of the chaos following an early-morning explosion in the city near where they were finishing a race, members of the Duke Battalion's 10 Miler team sprang into action to help others.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ‘17M)

Members of JMU’s Army ROTC program had just completed a second 5-mile loop through campus and nearby Purcell Park in Harrisonburg early Saturday morning when an explosion rocked a two-story building in Miller Circle, about 30 yards from the finish line.

“Out of nowhere, there was this massive explosion,” said Lt. Col. Graham Davidson, head of military science at JMU, who was among the 26 cadets and ROTC faculty members—cadre, in military terminology—who participated in this year’s virtual Army Ten Miler in support of soldiers and their families.

“It was deafening,” Davidson said. “The flame and the smoke cloud that went up and the glass that was shattering in the surrounding buildings … it was overwhelming. It really did create initial chaos.”

In the midst of the chaos, the Duke Battalion’s 10 Miler team huddled to account for individual members and check on their conditions, assess the situation and establish an area for the injured to begin receiving medical attention.

“They were exercising their military training instinctively,” Davidson said.

Capt. Michael Schoenbeck, a professor of military science at JMU, and Sgt. 1st Class Gerardo Rangel, an instructor in the program, sprang into action, providing first aid to two victims who sustained injuries at the time of the blast.

Having finished the race, cadet Jack Murphy, a junior international affairs major and volunteer firefighter, was in his car when the explosion occurred. In the aftermath, he immediately began looking for ways to help.

“I give a lot of credit to the [firefighter] training I receive from [Hose Company No. 4 in] Rockingham County and the Army ROTC to react well under pressure,” Murphy said. “When in doubt, do something. I got out on my car, and it was ‘OK, let’s go to work.’”

Murphy spotted a victim coming out of the rubble, covered in dust. He grabbed the person around the waist and supported him until he could hand him off to a bystander, with instructions to take him to the casualty area.

Moments later, when the Harrisonburg Fire Department arrived on the scene, Murphy returned to his vehicle, strapped on his gear and joined the crew. He would stay on the scene for more than six hours.

Davidson said Murphy’s efforts were nothing short of heroic.

“For a young man, not yet 21 years old, [who was] just completing a very difficult 10-mile run, to experience an explosion like that … and then have the wherewithal to run to his truck and put on his firefighter gear and be there to lead the initial effort to fight the fire … I thought that was inspiring and typical of the type of cadets we have here at JMU,” Davidson said.

Mark L’Esperance, dean of the College of Education, which houses the Department of Military Science, was also impressed with the character and selflessness displayed by members of the Duke Battalion on the scene.

“One of the things that really stuck out to me was the fact that these are 19- and 22-year-old JMU students,” L’Esperance said. “They were calm. They listened to their cadre. … They have that innate quality of leadership. There’s just something inside of them that’s unique. They don’t run away [from an incident]. They run towards [it].”

A preliminary investigation by the Harrisonburg Fire Marshal’s office revealed Monday afternoon that the explosion was the result of a natural gas leak inside the building. The exact origin of the leak and the ignition source are still unknown.

Three cadets suffered minor injuries Saturday, mostly from the shards of glass created by the explosion. One of the cadets was transported to Sentara RMH Medical Center for cuts to her arm, but was released Saturday afternoon.

“I couldn’t be more proud of all our cadets and cadre members,” Davidson said. “They helped each other out. There was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of teamwork, a lot of really good communication throughout. … They all demonstrated our warrior ethos, the principles of our profession.” 



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Published: Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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