It was the kind of moment that defines an Army medic.

Pfc. Lisa Bryant, 21, of Scarborough, a medic with the Maine Army National Guard, was driving down a highway when, suddenly, all hell broke loose.

A vehicle just ahead of her, going about 65 mph, slammed sideways into a guardrail. The impact sent it into a 360-degree spin, filling the road with disintegrating tires and other flying debris.

Then, as Bryant hit her brakes and wove her way through the still-moving wreckage, something flew out the side door. Something big.

“My first thought was, ‘Is that a person?’ ” recalled Bryant.

It happened on Aug. 21 — not in some faraway war zone where death lurks around every corner, but right here in Maine.

And yes, it was a person.

His name is Larry Huff. He’s 67, lives in Westbrook and would likely have died that summer afternoon on Interstate 295 in Bowdoinham if not for the young citizen soldier who had her head on straight and her battlefield first-aid kit in the trunk.

“She’s my angel,” said a tearful Huff as he wrapped Bryant in a bear hug Thursday morning. “She’s a very, very special young lady and without her, I wouldn’t be here.”

The last time Bryant saw Huff, he was being airlifted from the accident scene to a hospital stay that would last almost two months. Now here he was, presenting her with the Maine Transportation Safety Coalition’s Special Achievement Award for doing in peaceful Maine what she’s trained to do in a war zone: Step 1 — run toward trouble. Step 2 — save a life.

It hasn’t been an easy year for Huff. He’s retired and spent most of his time in recent years taking care of his wife, Cheryl, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, emphysema and a host of other medical problems before, as he puts it, “the good Lord chose to take her” in April.

“It’s … it’s tough,” Huff said, his voice breaking. “We were married 48 years.”

But life goes on and so did Huff, who volunteers as a driver for the Regional Transportation Program. He was ferrying a client from Bangor to Portland that day when something — he has no memory of what — went horribly wrong.

Police reported at the time that Huff started to steer his minivan into the passing lane, noticed another vehicle in his mirror and swerved hard back to the right.

He then caught the highway’s right shoulder, over-corrected and went diagonally back across the two lanes into the left guardrail. The minivan ricocheted into a full spin, its side door opened and out flew Huff onto the grass alongside the road.

Bryant, meanwhile, was with her fiance and stepfather, whom she was taking to a medical appointment in Portland.

One minute they were cruising along, joking about a game her stepdad was playing on his cellphone. The next, Bryant was driving through a debris field.

“Everyone’s yelling, ‘Pull over! Pull over! Hurry up! Hurry up!’ ” she recalled. “But I didn’t want to become part of the accident, so I slowed down to get through it all and then I pulled over and got out.”

Bryant, a University of Southern Maine student who joined the Maine Guard in the spring of 2010, has thankfully never been in a war zone. In fact, while she’d spent countless hours training as a medic, she had never worked on a real-life patient.

“To be honest with you, I couldn’t tell you what was going through my mind except, ‘I’ve got to do this … I’ve got to do this … I’ve got to do this …’ ” she said. “I couldn’t even tell you what was going on around me. I didn’t have a clue.”

Huff’s minivan passenger could walk and appeared to have only minor glass cuts on his arm. Huff, on the other hand, wasn’t moving.

“The first thing you’re taught is ‘airway,’ ” Bryant said, as if reciting from a manual. “Without an airway, they’re not breathing. Without breathing, there’s not circulation. Without circulation, they’re not going to live.”

And where was Huff on that mental checklist?

“He wasn’t breathing. And his pulse was very faint.”

Huff’s dentures had broken and were lodged in his throat. His nose was fractured and bleeding heavily, further constricting his airway.

Bryant carefully dug out the dentures. Then, using the suction ball in her medic kit, she extracted as much fluid as she could.

Within seconds, Huff’s breathing resumed. His pulse strengthened. His eyes fluttered.

Next, Bryant checked for external hemorrhaging. None.

Bryant stayed with Huff as he regained consciousness, trying to engage him in conversation until paramedics arrived — a “higher care” in medic-speak — and took over. A LifeFlight helicopter arrived soon thereafter and off he went to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

And Bryant?

She read in the paper the next day that Huff was alive but in critical condition. After that, like so many first responders, all she could do was wonder if her efforts had paid off.

Thursday morning, she got her answer in the form of a plaque from the safety coalition that praised Bryant for her skill, quick thinking and compassion.

“It’s a wonderful thing to know in this day and age that we are protected overseas by our military, but we’re also protected at home,” coalition member Harvey Boatman, himself a veteran, told Bryant. “Your skill and talent are an example for us all.”

In addition to her award, Bryant got her reward — a ceramic angel from the man whose life she saved.

Surrounded by his two sons and their wives, Huff told those in the packed room that he spent five weeks in intensive care and a couple more in rehab — none of which would have been possible without the young Maine soldier who appeared out of nowhere when he needed help the most.

“This lady right here is truly my angel, she really is,” Huff said for the umpteenth time. “She gave me a second chance on life.”

It’s what medics do.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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