Sgt Maj. Christopher J. Adams, senior enlisted advisor, 4th Marine Division, awards Sgt. Joseph Howard, an infantry mortarman with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal during a ceremony at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, Dec. 9, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz.
Sgt. Joseph Howard got tired of retelling the tale “a million and one times” over the past five years, but it’s now the official citation on his Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
Brig. Gen. Douglas K. Clark, the commander of the 4th Marine Division, pinned the medal on Howard during a Dec. 9, 2022, ceremony at New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
It’s the highest non-combat decoration a sailor or Marine can receive, and it’s usually reserved for those who risk their lives to save others.
And that’s what Howard, 29, a mortarman with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, did around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2017, in Levittown, New York, shortly after he heard “this crazy loud explosion.”
Then-Cpl. Joseph A. Howard, a mortarman with 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, orients his trajectory of fire through an M2A2 Aiming Circle before the start of a firing range at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, Dec. 6, 2019. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tojyea G. Matally.
A driver in a black 2008 Mercedes-Benz luxury sedan had roared through a red light on Wantagh Avenue, striking and flipping a Dodge pickup truck, which pinballed upside down into a four-door Volkswagen, hurling it 300 feet.
The Mercedes stopped when it slapped off a Jeep and then speared into a tree.
At the time, Howard was a lance corporal in the Marine Forces Reserve and a full-time New York Police Department officer assigned to the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn.
He looked at the pickup and saw the Dodge “folded upside down, on fire, and they were trapped,” he told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Sgt. Maj. Christopher J. Adam reads the Navy and Marine Medal award citation on Dec. 9, 2022, during a ceremony in New Jersey honoring Sgt. Joseph Howard, a Marine reservist from Yonkers, New York. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz.
Howard pulled a U-turn in his car, parked it, and then he and his roommate, Shane Bula, sprinted to the truck.
“We had to at least attempt because I couldn't, I could never,” Howard said. “I couldn't drive away knowing that there's someone in there.”
Except for the four-vehicle pileup, the intersection was deserted and eerily quiet. All they could hear was “the fire crinkle,” he recalled.
Wielding a pole they found, Howard and Bula tried to break through the driver’s side window of the overturned truck but couldn’t shatter the glass.
John “Alex” LoRusso, right, one of the two victims of a car collision who was saved by Sgt. Joseph Howard, left, a Yonkers, New York, native and a mortarman with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz.
That’s when a third man, Brad Thearian, came running up, carrying a hammer firefighters use to smash open windows.
Thearian, a volunteer firefighter, helped them yank the driver, John “Alex” LoRusso, out of his seat.
They dragged him to the side of the avenue.
Howard said he momentarily felt like celebrating, but then Bula poked him and said a passenger appeared to still be trapped in the truck.
“No way,” Howard said, as the flames grew higher and smoke began to roll out of the pickup.
US Marine Sgt. Joseph Howard, a mortarman with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, is honored on Dec. 9, 2022, for helping to save multiple lives following a car accident five years earlier. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz.
Howard, Bula, and Thearian ran back to the Dodge.
The passenger door was crushed closed, so Howard wiggled through the rear window and then used his knife to cut the seat belt bound around a woman passenger, while the truck burned above him.
They pulled Stephanie Nuner from the wreckage and began hustling her to the sidewalk.
Seconds later, Howard said, he heard “the car just go boom!” and then scrap metal pelted his leather jacket.
“They say cars don't explode like that. That one did,” Howard told Coffee or Die.
US Marines with 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, fire an M252A1 81mm mortar on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, Dec. 6, 2019. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tojyea G. Matally.
First responders arrived, and the men put Nuner on a stretcher. Paramedics rushed her and LoRusso to the Nassau University Medical Center.
He was treated for broken ribs, pulmonary contusions, and traumatic brain injury. She suffered a broken collar bone and fractures to both ankles and one of her feet.
But they survived.
Paramedics also treated the driver of the Jeep and his passenger, but the man behind the wheel of the Mercedes had vanished, and cops began searching for him.
A mortarman assigned to 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, ignites leftover propellant from the mortar shoot at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Dec 11, 2020. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Matthew Porter.
He was Kelvin D. O’Neal.
He pleaded guilty in 2019 to four counts of assault on the drivers and passengers injured in Levittown that night, plus a charge of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in physical injury.
O’Neal, 48, is serving a five-year sentence at the Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone, New York.
Looking back on it all, Howard said, it was his Marine training that made him take quick and resolute action that night. But being a cop in Brooklyn also helped him maintain control of the moment, no matter how crazy it got.
“The Marine Corps, definitely, I would say, we have balls and guts to get in there and get after it,” he said.
On Dec. 9, 2022, at New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Vicky Keill, the mother of John “Alex” LoRusso, shows photographs of her son's accident and hospitalization five years earlier. Sgt. Joseph Howard, a mortarman with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, is credited with helping to save her son's life. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Leslie Alcaraz.
Howard deployed to Afghanistan for a combat tour, and then rotated back home. He’d tell sea stories about that night to others because it was so unbelievable, but he never expected to get a medal for it.
“It wasn’t even me trying to get any recognition out of it,” Howard said. “It was just me telling the story, like, ‘Oh, you're not gonna believe what happened.’”
And he probably wouldn’t have it on his chest if a Nassau County fire chief hadn’t penned a personal letter to Howard’s Marine Corps command about his heroism, which apparently triggered the long process of awarding the medal.
During the Dec. 9 ceremony, Howard’s family drove out to New Jersey to see him get decorated. They were joined by John LoRusso, the man he helped save five years ago, and his family.
Even if he shrugs off the hype from the ceremony, Howard thinks it’s kind of cool that his parents got to see “all these people stand at attention for me to get an award from a general.”
Read Next: Cops: Marine Corps Recruiters Nab 2 Robbery Suspects, Foil Gem Heist
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
For the first time, a team of (mostly) US veterans and active-duty service members will run in The S...
The British defense ministry on Monday confirmed it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.
“Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegr...
Today, we combine the best of both worlds with this indulgent recipe, smashing together our love of coffee and ice cream with a cold brew coffee soda float!
The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or ...
The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In its yearlong study of almost 900,000 service members who flew on or worked on military aircraft b...
American veterans are taking the lessons they learned in the military and changing the craft distilling industry.