Photo Information

Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton, II Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general, shakes hands with Sgt. Diego R. Zuluaga, a radio operator with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force 12.2, after presenting him with a Navy-Marine Corps Medal aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., March 7, 2012. Zuluaga was driving to his reserve drill company in Amityville, N.Y., when he and another Marine saw a car crash survivor trapped in a burning vehicle. At great personal risk, Zuluaga rushed to the vehicle and pulled the man from the burning wreckage.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Adwin C. Esters

SPMAGTF 12.2 Marine awarded Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Bravery

7 Mar 2012 | Lance Cpl. Adwin C. Esters, SPMAGTF-12.2

Sgt. Diego R. Zuluaga, a radio operator serving in Alpha Company, 6th Communication Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, located in Amityville, New York, and a fellow reservist were on their way to their drilling station on a seemingly normal Sunday morning on February 13, 2011, when they passed a burning vehicle on the Southern State Parkway in Roosevelt, New York.

The accident seemed to have occurred merely seconds before they happened upon it, said Zuluaga. He noticed vehicles in front of him pulling over to the side of the road to avoid a hazard further up the road. Then they saw the danger: a vehicle had apparently lost control and went off an overpass onto the highway below, struck a bridge embankment, and exploded into flames with three male occupants trapped inside.

Heavy smoke from the flames obscured the entire area, and the heat added to the chaos of the scene.

“When I saw the flames I said, ‘pull over, pull over!’” said Zuluaga, to the driver Sgt. Luis R. Salavarria, a multi-channel radio operator assigned to his unit, who leapt from the vehicle and ran towards the sound of the flames and cries for help.

“I heard, ‘God, someone help me!’” said Zuluaga. “I was close to him, but because of the intense heat I couldn’t get too close. All I kept thinking was get this guy out of there.”

With great personal risk to flames, smoke, and possible explosion, Zuluaga approached the burning automobile and could see two occupants in the front and one in the rear passenger side of the vehicle.

Zuluaga made the difficult decision to focus his efforts on the passenger in the back of the vehicle. With the assistance of a New York State Trooper who arrived on the scene, they were able to pull the back seat passenger a safe distance from the flame-engulfed vehicle. Paramedics arrived on scene, rushing the severely injured man to a local hospital, where he later succumbed to the injuries sustained in the accident.

For his heroism and bravery in the face of grave danger, Zuluaga, was presented the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, which is awarded to service members for heroism and actions involving the risk of one's own life.

Zuluaga, who was recently selected for staff sergeant, is now part of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12.2, a unit preparing to deploy in support of U.S. Africa Command and currently attached to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Command Element, II Marine Expeditionary Force for their pre-deployment training program.

Lt. Gen. John M. Paxton, commanding general, II MEF, presented the medal to Zuluaga on March 7, 2012, in front of the Marines and sailors of SPMAGTF 12.2.

"Sgt. Zuluaga went above and beyond the call of duty by performing such a selfless act, reflecting great credit upon him and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps," Paxton said.