An East-coast based Naval Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the Department of Defense in a small ceremony Sept. 22.
“It was an honor to recognize the actions of one our teammates,” said Rear Adm. H. W. Howard III, commander, Naval Special Warfare Command. “His problem solving, grit, and humility is powerful testimony to our standard for character and service that we – the men and women of Naval Special Warfare – aspire to serve each day.”
Over Memorial Day weekend 2019, the SEAL along with his wife, children, parents, and in-laws spent the weekend in Morehead, North Carolina. Throughout the long weekend, the SEAL’s mother-in-law worried about the prospect of going to the beach. Her fears were based on the fact that the rash of drownings Atlantic Beach saw that year – six to date at the time – was more than occurred in all of 2018.
A topic of conversation for several days, the family decided to move forward with plans to go to the beach. Safety was a prime concern as the SEAL stepped onto the extremely crowded shoreline. On their arrival, five kids playing in the water drew his attention.
“These kids stuck out to me because they were playing just a little deeper than any of the other kids,” he said. “There weren’t lifeguards on the beach, and the red flag for rip current was up so not many people were in the water, and if they were, they were only knee deep, so they had my attention.”
As the family settled into their beach vacation, the SEAL glanced back to the children playing in the distance and saw three of the kids dive into a wave. As the children exited the wave, they began to drift out. Sensing trouble, he stood up and started to walk toward the water.
“My first thought was, is this happening after we talked about it for the last two days?” he said. “On top of that, I’ve never seen anyone drown. I’ve heard stories, I have a lot of training when it comes to life-saving techniques, but I had never seen it in person.”
Walking closer to the ocean, the kids were slowly drifting away, but they weren’t splashing or screaming. It was quiet.
Grabbing a youth size boogie board, the SEAL walked the shoreline and watched the kids.
“The kids had been in the water anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds, and that’s when I saw their father bolt into the water,” he said. “That’s when I knew that the situation was bad.”
The SEAL got about halfway to where the children were when he could hear their father screaming for help. While continuing to move toward the water to help, the SEAL got the attention of his family and had them call 911. He reached the father and saw that the man was treading water holding up two children trying to keep their heads above water.
The SEAL gave the father the boogie board for the children and saw that the third child was 25 yards away. The father pointed at the child, saying he needed help. The SEAL immediately swam to his aid.
“When I got to him I expected him to be combative, he was only five-years old but, I still expected him to be flailing,” he said. “He was incredibly still because he was hypoxic. I put him in the rescue position and began to swim to shore.” Hypoxia is a physical condition resulting from the deprivation of oxygen.
The SEAL swam hard despite his fear that he wasn’t sure he could get back to shore because the rip current kept pushing him out.
“I was pretty smoked by that point,” said the SEAL. “I was drained. I knew even if I couldn’t make it back, rescue crews would be showing up soon, so I just put my head down and kept going.”
As he kept swimming, all he could think of was how thankful he was for his training.
“Everything about rip currents, and surf zones I learned in BUD/S [the SEAL assessment, selection, and training program],” said the SEAL. “I was reminded of the seven-mile swim we do in BUD/S, and I thought to myself, if I have to I can do this all day.”
After ten minutes of swimming, the SEAL escaped the rip current and reached the surf zone, he was met by a Marine who assisted in bringing them back to shore.
After leaving the child with the Marine, his attention turned to the father and sons still about 125 yards offshore. The first rescue put the SEAL a few hundred yards down the beach, and he now had a greater distance to cover to reach the father and his boys again.
“I’m not sure how long it took me to get out there. I know it took longer than I thought because of my position. The whole time I could see all three of them,” said the SEAL.
“As I passed through the surf zone, I looked up and couldn’t see the dad anymore. I got close to the boys, and I saw the dad for a split second just below the surface, and then I lost him.”
The SEAL was able to get the boys onto the bigger boogie board and asked them where their dad went. One boy replied that he was gone. He looked around for the father but couldn’t find him.
Less than a minute later, rescue swimmers and a jet ski arrived. The SEAL told the rescue team the last place he saw the father and took the two boys back to shore as rescue personnel tried to locate the father.
Ernest Foster II, a 38-year-old school teacher, died trying to save his children. The SEAL and Foster’s family did their best to aid the police in follow-on reporting. After the event transpired, the SEAL noticed stories coming out based on sporadic stories from beachgoers who only witnessed segments of the event.
“I was the only one who saw everything from start to finish,” said the SEAL. ”The reports painted him [the father] as someone who was swimming in a red flag rip current with his kids. People on social media just trashed this poor guy and all reports failed to mention his true actions that day. A hero who died saving his family.”
The SEAL contacted Foster’s mother to give a firsthand account of what actually happened.
“I was able to set the record straight and was asked to speak at his funeral. We were able to make his funeral a celebration of his bravery and sacrifice because he was a hero. The man died saving his children; he was a hero.”
To this day the SEAL remains in contact with Foster’s mother.
Editor’s Note: The Naval Special Warfare Operator’s identity is not provided due to operational security and privacy concerns.