Jason Wright: Ten seconds that became a defining moment
On May 25, retired Lt. Col. Sherman Fleek, a longtime resident of Shenandoah County now serving as the civilian command historian at the U.S. Military Academy, was awarded the Secretary of the Army Award for Valor by Secretary Eric K. Fanning.
According to the Army, nominees distinguish themselves by exhibiting “great courage or sacrifice involving heroism or bravery.”
And sometimes, they do it while waiting for pancakes.
On May 31, 2015, Fleek, also an author of both historical fiction and nonfiction, was on leave from West Point to attend his son’s marriage in the Sacramento, California, temple. He took the opportunity to visit the 93-year-old widow of a friend in Fairfield, California. Shortly after noon, Fleek and his friend visited a local IHOP.
As he sat in the lobby, Fleek had no idea he would call on years of military training as they simply awaited an open table.
“I heard some loud voices, calls and crying,” Fleek said. “Then two young women ran from their chairs past me in the waiting area and dashed through the doors.”
Fleek’s eyes followed their path backward to the cashier’s counter, and he saw a man hiding under a hat with a scarf around his face. He was pointing a 9-millimeter Beretta pistol at the cashier. “(The man) yelled, ‘Put all the money in the bag!’ and the frightened young employee began pulling cash from the register.”
Impressions came at Fleek with sudden force.
“The gunman was facing away and did not see me,” Fleek said. “I knew I could take him down. But if I did, perhaps someone would be shot and wounded, or even killed.”
A surge overcame Fleek, and he rushed the gunman. In a flash, he realized that three decades had passed since he’d needed to use his hand-to-hand combat skills learned during Special Forces training.
“I pounced, and the blow knocked him across the counter and the cashier,” Fleek said. “I tried to reach my right arm under his right armpit and then secure him in a headlock or half nelson, and then I could shake the firearm loose. The gunman turned on me with the pistol still in his grip.”
Fleek grabbed the man’s wrists and tried to twist the weapon away, but the man pushed down, and for a moment, the muzzle was pointed at Fleek’s chest. Using every ounce of his adrenaline-fueled strength, Fleek pushed the gunman, and they both lost their balance, falling to a bench.
“We continued for a moment to wrestle for control of the pistol while straddled across the bench,” Fleek said. “Then, gaining our feet, somehow we both separated.”
Fleek said the man fled on foot, and he believes the entire ordeal lasted just 10 seconds.
Fleek responded with humility when asked about the Army’s prestigious Secretary of the Army Award for Valor.
“I am torn and divided,” he said. “Half of me thinks this award is interesting and valor should be recognized, but then I ponder: Why? I just acted. I didn’t even think it through. Why all the fuss? The robber got away.”
Yet at the award’s ceremony held at the Pentagon, Fanning said that Fleek’s bravery saved lives and represented dedication to excellence and commitment to selfless service.
“People are our greatest resource,” Fanning said. “Our strength, the strength of this nation, has come from our values, our ethos and our people – the soldiers and civilians we honor today epitomize the best the Army has to offer.”
Fleek said he never dreamt that 10 seconds would become “one of the most defining aspects of (his) life.” But he does not view himself as anything more than a military man doing his job.
“Of course I am deeply honored, and no, I do not consider myself a hero,” he said.
When the buzz over the award fades and the plaque is on the wall, Fleek will return to his quiet work as command historian at West Point and to his calling as high priest group leader in the West Point Ward.
And, if all goes well, he might finally get those pancakes.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including “Christmas Jars,” “The Wednesday Letters” and “The 13th Day of Christmas.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.jasonfwright.com.