At 7 a.m. Sept. 8, Wyoming Army National Guard Cadet Kristen Welch was in the wrong place at the right time.
Driving east along Wyoming Highway 34 through Sybille Canyon, she chanced upon a grisly scene.
“I was on my way to drill,” said Kristen, a 28-year-old University of Wyoming Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet. “I had left late, so I was there when I wasn’t supposed to be.”
A white pickup lay on its side near the westbound lane. A scattered trail of debris led from mile marker 16.4 to the overturned vehicle. Amid the wreckage, Kristen saw a body — Michael King. He was not moving.
“I thought he was dead,” she remembered, folding her hands, averting her gaze and lowering her voice. “His shoes — his shoes came off when he was thrown from the truck. That was probably the strangest thing.”
Kristen’s flaxen hair glittered in the afternoon sunlight filtering through the UW ROTC building window Friday. Standing 5 feet, 3 inches tall, she was not an imposing figure, but with a no-nonsense demeanor and square posture, Kristen radiated an air of confidence more befitting a combat-hardened veteran than a first-year law student.
“I didn’t have cell service to call 911, but I didn’t want to drive to where I would have service and leave this guy laying there,” Kristen said. “So, I pulled over. I had to climb through a barb wire fence to get to him. There was stuff everywhere. It was so quiet.”
As Kristen approached Michael, he sat up and looked around as if he were lost.
“He started screaming,” Kristen said. “And when I got over to him, he was talking, but I don’t think he knew what he was saying. He was clearly in a lot of pain, and I’m sure he had some bones broken, but I don’t know how many.”
Michael lay in the grass with little more than a sweatshirt to protect him from the cool morning air. Because Kristen was on her way to drill, she had her full kit in the car and fetched him a sleeping bag to stave off the cold and shock.
“I was alone with that guy — I don’t even know how long,” Kristen said. “Time just doesn’t flow normally in situations like those — maybe 20 minutes? I don’t know.”
Descended from a long line of military veterans, Kristen was always the type to take charge of a situation, her father, Dean Welch, said.
“She was a very strong-willed child,” said Dean, who retired from the U.S. Navy after 23 years of service. “She talked more like a grown up than she did a child. She liked to be in charge rather than take directions.”
Dean said his step-father served during the Vietnam War, and his grandfathers served during World War II. Kristen’s younger brother, Jacob, also served six years in the Navy.
“I was upset she didn’t pick the Navy,” Dean said, chuckling. “But, I’m very proud of her for serving her country. It takes some courage to serve your country. It’s not for the weak-hearted.”
While the Navy was Kristen’s first choice, she said the branch wasn’t willing to pay for her schooling — the Army, however, offered her a Guaranteed Reserve Forces Duty Scholarship. She enlisted as a cadet November 2016 and was assigned to the Wyoming Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 300th Field Artillery headquarters unit.
“Both my brother and dad were enlisted, so they’ve given me some guff about becoming an officer,” Kristen said, adding with a laugh, “I did get my mom a bigger Army Mom bumper sticker than her Navy Mom bumper sticker, though.”
Born in Oregon and raised across the world as a “Navy Brat,” Kristen said she always planned to join the military.
“I think it’s pretty common for brats to feel that call,” she said. “When you grow up in that culture, it forms your identity.”
After her father retired, the family moved to Wyoming where Dean found work at the Gillette Police Department, and Kristen completed her junior and senior years of high school.
“I think Wyoming is great,” Kristen said. “If you want to do something here, it’s a small enough place you can find a way to do it. Plus, UW is one of the most affordable universities in the nation.”
Michael screamed and writhed in agony for what seemed like an eternity.
Most of his wounds were internal, so there was little blood, but without knowing the extent of his injuries, Kristen didn’t want to move him, nor leave him.
“After a while, another guy stopped, so I sent him to call 911,” she said. “Eventually, a few more people ended up stopping. Once (Michael) was stabilized somewhat, I had some people help me look to see if there was anyone else. My biggest concern was we might have missed someone who was in the truck with him.”
Kristen said she’d asked Michael if he was alone, but his responses didn’t make sense.
“All of this was interspersed with horrible screaming that I have still have nightmares about,” she added. “I’ve seen dead bodies before, so I should have been good. But that screaming, it was awful. I can’t describe it.”
The scene was about a 15-minute drive from cell service, and after sending several people to call 911, Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Rick Colling responded to the accident.
“The evidence suggested he was negotiating a sweeping turn in the roadway and hit a delineator post,” Colling said. “That’s really common with what we see when people are inattentive or fall asleep at the wheel. We do not believe alcohol was a factor in the accident.”
Michael overcorrected after hitting the post, resulting in his pickup rolling several times, during which he was ejected from the vehicle, Colling said. Michael was not wearing a seatbelt, the trooper said.
“We’re not sure if the vehicle rolled over (Michael), but he was in a bad way,” Colling said. “I certainly think it’s a possibility he might not have survived without (Kristen’s) care, but that would be speculation. He was very fortunate that she came along when she did. I know that for sure.”
Michael was taken to a hospital by emergency responders, and despite inquiring with the highway patrol, Kristen never learned his name or fate.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Working in law enforcement during numerous similar incidents, Dean said his daughter showed her true self Sept. 8.
“I was extremely impressed with the actions she took that day,” he said. “At an accident like that, there’s people who don’t want to get involved, and there’s people who step in and take charge of the situation.”
Kristen said the memory still seems surreal.
“I’m small, I’m female, I’m blond,” she said. “I don’t look authoritative. But there I was in my uniform, and there were middle-aged men stopping, looking to me for what to do.”
Sitting up a little straighter, pinning her shoulders back, Kristen said the event reminded her of the weight carried when donning the Army uniform.
“It says a lot about how important it is how we carry ourselves in uniform,” she said. “People do look at you differently.”
During the annual Governor’s Reception on Oct. 13, Gov. Matt Mead and Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner presented Kristen with the Wyoming Military Department’s Heroes Among Us award for her actions Sept. 8.
Dean said the award made him proud, but more than the recognition, he said her actions exemplified what it means to serve one’s country.
“I’ve known a lot of officers in the Navy, and some of them were good officers and some weren’t,” Dean said. “I think she’ll make a great officer.”