Savannah VanHook celebrated her fourth birthday Jan. 13, 2019, by visiting Claire's at the Fashion Place mall, Murray, Utah, with her parents to pierce her ears — something she's been asking her mother and father for over five months. It stung, but she seemed proud of her freshly-pierced ears. The family headed to the food court when something entirely different pierced her ears: The sound of four gunshots ringing throughout the mall.
Savannah's father, Sgt. Marshall VanHook, a recruiter with the Herriman U.S. Army Recruiting Station, recognized the sound immediately and directed his daughter and wife, Sarah, into a T-Mobile store to take cover.
Vanhook then ran toward the commotion.
"I saw the flash, and I heard the shots. I knew immediately what it was; it's very distinctive," recalled Vanhook. "My first response was to make sure my family was taken care of … and then it was just a matter of 'I need to stop this before it gets to my family,' so I took off. I ran towards where I thought the threat was at. While I was running there really were no thoughts other than 'take care of business.'"
Vanhook ran through the mall and made his way outside in an attempt to see the shooter to get a description, he explained.
"I got out to the parking lot and it was a bit of chaos, people were running and I had no idea where they went," he said. "I just came back and that's where I saw the two victims."
The two victims, an adult male and adult female, were starting to fall to the ground. He ended his search for the gunmen and jumped into action to assist saving lives.
"It was just a matter of getting to work," said Vanhook.
A mobile phone video from a fellow shoppers captured his next actions. VanHook removed his belt and created a makeshift tourniquet above the woman's visible gunshot wound. Keeping a calm disposition, he directed an observer to use her scarf to apply direct pressure to the leg injury while he moved on to assess the man's condition.
Victims of shooting at Fashion Place Mall in Murray, UtahDramatic footage of two victims being treated by bystanders following a shooting at Fashion Place Mall in Murray, Utah.
Vanhook has served in the U.S. Army Reserve for nine years. Before joining the Herriman recruiting team four months ago, he served as a civil affairs specialist with the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade. There, he received first aid response training, including Combat Lifesaver in 2014.
"Because of the Army, it instilled something in me to react in danger and not to flee from it," explained VanHook.
Combat Lifesaver Course is the next level of first aid training after Army Basic Training Course. It provides in-depth training on responding to arterial bleeding, blocked airways, trauma, chest wounds and other battlefield injuries. The course was presented as realistically as possible, making it effective and easier to apply in a real scenario, explained VanHook.
"You go over [the training] and over it. It's just a matter of muscle memory," he said. "There really wasn't thought. It was action."
Although VanHook doesn't consider himself a hero, his leaders feel he has represented himself and the Army well.
"His actions definitely, I think, were heroic," said Lt. Col. Carl D. Whitman, commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion (Salt Lake City). "Most people don't normally run to the sound of the guns, if you will… but he's a soldier and went into action as soldiers do. We're well-trained. His training and that mindset took over."
"A lot of folks out there may call him or other soldiers that do that a hero, but I think those of us in uniform don't see ourselves that way, and I know he doesn't, but definitely his actions were heroic," Whitman said. "His actions resulted in saving a couple people's lives."
VanHook explained after everything that occurred, his family is doing well but it all seems surreal.
"It doesn't feel real," he said. "It makes me angry. I'm a little angry that something like that happened. It was my daughter's birthday and it kind of messed it up. We had plans that night and because of the incident, it kind of got put on hold."
He explained his wife was scared to leave the house following the shooting, but now they are working together to get back to normal life. His daughter Savannah, too young to realize the weight of the incident, he said, described the evening as "not how she wanted to spend her birthday."
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.
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