The USO is honored to name the 2022 USO Service Members of the Year, who are being recognized for their heroic and selfless actions.
Each year, honorees from different military branches are nominated by their command leadership for performing extraordinary acts of bravery that exemplify the values of the Armed Forces and the USO. Get to know this year’s honorees:
Sgt. Erick Ceja | USO Soldier of the Year 2022
Late in the evening of January 22, 2022, American and allied forces received a notification that there were incoming Medium Range Ballistic Missiles aiming for their location at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). U.S. Army Sgt. Erick Ceja distinguished himself that evening by responding decisively to the incoming missiles, leading his team and flawlessly executing his duties and responsibilities to ensure that the missiles were intercepted, and lives were not in danger.
Erick ensured that the United States Patriot system’s launcher capabilities were ready and able to fire. He continued to conduct refueling and maintenance operations for several hours with his crew, posturing his system while threats were inbound.
Erick was also crucial in establishing a clear picture of the situation on the ground as it unfolded, maintaining constant communication with other crew members to ensure their combat responsibilities were done quickly, and to standard. His efforts were directly responsible for enabling the first United States Patriot engagement in combat in 19 years, as seven interceptors were allocated to threats aiming for Al Dhafra Air Base.
Immediately following the engagement, Erick was directed to diagnose and remedy maintenance faults on the launcher used in the engagement. Within minutes, he was able to identify and fix the launcher. Following the crew’s work, the launcher remained postured for follow-on engagements if required.
Erick’s actions that day were crucial. He was directly responsible for preparing for the engagement that, had it failed, would have endangered the lives of over 3,500 service members and Department of Defense civilians, as well the fleet of Predator Unmanned Aerial Systems, AWACS aircraft and KC-10 fuelers stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base. His poise and calm under pressure, as well as his ability to execute the first United States Patriot engagement in over 19 years, is a testament to his resolve, exceptional leadership and military bearing in a combat environment.
Erick is originally from El Paso, Texas.
Staff Sgt. Blake M. Metscher | USO Airman of the Year
Last year, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Blake M. Metscher, an Aircraft Metals Technology Journeyman, exhibited quick thinking and decisiveness when rescuing a family following a multi-vehicle car accident.
After witnessing the accident, Blake selflessly sprang into action to rescue the family trapped inside their overturned vehicle on the highway. Without hesitation, he climbed over their vehicle to reach them and pulled the injured mother from the car. After making sure she was safe, he then rescued her two injured children from the vehicle. Following this lifesaving act, Blake moved them to a safe location and continued to tend to the family’s needs and health, including assessing their injuries and initiating calming conversation to keep them at ease until emergency services arrived at the scene.
Blake followed his brave actions by ensuring the crash scene was safe and clear for ambulatory services to arrive by assessing the overturned vehicle for leaks, as well as clearing road debris – all of which was praised by first responders upon arrival. When the emergency services arrived, Blake helped prep the victims for transport so that they could receive emergency medical treatment even more quickly. His fast thinking and brave actions were a clear demonstration of Blake’s instincts to place his service to others over himself, saving multiple lives in the process.
Originally from Macks Creek, Missouri, Blake is currently stationed at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores | USO Coast Guardsman of the Year 2022
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Flores demonstrated exceptional heroism and responsiveness when he saved three lives as a Boat Crew Member while operating on a Response Boat-Small on an uncharted section of the Rio Grande River, Texas.
Before first light, his boat crew received a report of an overloaded raft with nine non-citizens on board, crossing the unforgiving Rio Grande River, which is notorious for currents that can be deceptively fast, strong and deadly. Once on-scene, the Coast Guard crew saw an overturned raft with two adult women and an infant struggling in the water without lifejackets while six additional individuals ran from the water on the Mexico riverbank.
As the Coxswain guided their boat alongside the struggling women and child, Jacob selflessly dove into the river to save the infant, who was face-down in the water and quickly sinking. Jacob quickly retrieved the one-year-old and swam back to the boat, passing the unresponsive child to a crewmember on board, who immediately began performing CPR.
Jacob then swam out and retrieved the two adult women who were struggling to keep themselves above water, and brought them safely to the boat. After approximately several rounds of CPR, the one-year-old infant began showings signs of life; Jacob picked the cold and wet child up and held him close, soothing him and keeping him warm as they made their way to the riverbank. Jacob, a father of two, said that he pictured his own children when he saw the baby in the river and jumped in on instinct.
Without any regard for his own safety, Jacob rescued all three individuals from the water of the Rio Grande River. His unselfish actions and valiant service, despite imminent personal danger, saved three lives.
Petty Officer Flores is stationed at Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team (91104) Houston, Texas and is originally from San Antonio, Texas.
Cpl. Alec T. Cruz | USO Marine of the Year 2022
On November 12, 2021, U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Alec T. Cruz responded as the sole patrol unit to a 911 call requesting medical assistance for an unconscious and breathing Marine in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
Upon Alec’s arrival to the location of the call, the Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Alec observed a Marine passing in and out of consciousness and being held up by three non-commissioned officers and their staff NCO. Alec quickly assessed the health emergency, took control of the situation and directed the NCOs holding the Marine to place her in a recovery position.
Alec continued to evaluate and monitor the condition of the incapacitated Marine and then suddenly noticed that the Marine had ceased breathing and he could no longer locate her pulse. Without hesitation, Alec performed two cycles of CPR on the unconscious Marine until advanced life support arrived at the scene. Alec exhaustively provided lifesaving support to the Marine and monitored her condition while awaiting higher medical care. His actions proved to be successful, as he was eventually able to revive the Marine, effectively saving her life.
Alec demonstrated exemplary skill and maturity in his command of an emergency situation, giving orders and directions to bystanders present at the scene while simultaneously administering lifesaving aid and performing during elevated levels of stress. His actions were directly responsible for keeping a Marine alive until a higher echelon of care arrived on scene. Cpl. Alec T. Cruz is currently stationed at Headquarters Battalion, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay and is originally from Deltona, Florida.
Seaman Ty Knight | USO Sailor of the Year 2022
U.S. Navy Seaman Ty Knight was off duty and leaving a store in Norfolk, Virginia, when he heard gunshots. Ty took cover inside his vehicle and instantly begin assessing the situation, quickly recognizing that a drive-by shooting was occurring at the intersection just a few feet behind him. After the vehicle with the shooter hopped the curb and drove away, Ty leaped into action, exiting his vehicle and ready to provide aid where possible. This was when he noticed another Navy member, a senior chief, exiting a store nearby. They made eye contact and both immediately started running toward the scene of the incident.
Upon arriving on the scene, Ty began directing traffic as the senior chief began tending to wounded victims. The first victim was unresponsive with no pulse. Another off-duty sailor who happened to be nearby, ran up with a first aid kit to assist them, at which time they then realized a second wounded victim had run from the scene into a bookstore three stores down from where Ty originally was. They sprinted over to the store and saw the victim on the couch inside the front door, heavily wounded from two gunshot wounds.
After conducting an initial safety assessment of the situation in the bookstore, Ty helped the victim continue breathing and remain calm to help prevent him from going into shock. The other off-duty sailor then began applying bandages while Ty helped the victim continue breathing and assisted him in applying pressure to his to the wound in his abdomen.
Ty remained at the scene with this victim until EMTs and police arrived to take him to the hospital. Once the scene was filled with police, he gave his witness statement to a detective working the scene to assist in the investigation. Ty’s instinct to run toward – instead of away – from a dangerous situation is a credit to himself, his command and the entire United States Navy.
Seaman Ty Knight is currently stationed onboard the USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79), homeported at Norfolk Naval Station, in Norfolk, Virginia. He is originally from Sarasota, Florida.
Spc. Solomon J. Doss | USO National Guardsman of the Year 2022
U.S. National Guard Spc. Solomon J. Doss received a call on the morning of August 13, 2022, while on-duty at his civilian job as a Piedmont, Alabama, police officer to respond to an active structure fire. When he arrived on the scene with his partner, they could see flames and heavy smoke coming from the house and assessed that there was no time to wait for additional help to arrive. On scene, they coordinated briefly with an off-duty officer that had already attempted to gain entry to the building but had been forced to exit due to the severity of the smoke and fire.
Without hesitation, Solomon entered the structure in search of the occupant but was forced back out for clean air and to clear his lungs. He then reentered the structure in a second attempt, during which he located the occupant of the home, an elderly woman who had become incapacitated due to smoke inhalation. Solomon and his partner carried her safely out of the structure shortly before it was completely engulfed in flames, ultimately saving the woman’s life.
Solomon exemplified the highest standards of the Army Values, but chief among these demonstrated was “selfless service.” As a direct result of his composure, rapid response and heroic actions, Solomon prevented what would have certainly resulted in the tragic loss of life.
Spc. Solomon Doss serves with the Alabama National Guard’s 1166th Military Police Company and is from Piedmont, Alabama.
Sgt. Octavio Castruita | USO Guardian of the Year 2022
U.S. Space Force Sgt. Octavio Castruita was off duty in the Colorado Springs metropolitan area on June 14, 2022, when he witnessed a pregnant woman cry out for help. He quickly determined she was in a physical altercation with a visibly distraught man. Unhesitatingly and with no regard for his own safety, he ran to the woman’s aid, driving the assailant away.
When the offender attempted to escape on foot, Octavio persevered and pursued him, ultimately detaining the offender long enough for emergency responders to arrive and take the suspect into police custody. A police investigation determined the offender was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs and was attempting to forcibly seize the woman’s vehicle. Octavio’s rapid response saved the woman and her unborn child from certain physical and emotional harm.
Sgt. Octavio Castruita currently serves as the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Space Delta 4 Current Operations Branch at Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, and is originally from San Antonio, Texas.
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Every day, America’s service members selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free. Please take a moment to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice.