CHERRY POINT — Four Marines were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration for heroism, during a ceremony Tuesday morning aboard Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point for their efforts to save a family caught in a rip current off Atlantic Beach in 2018.
The medals were presented to Staff Sgt. Leary Reichartwarfel, Cpl. Anders Larsen, Cpl. Austin McMullen and Cpl. Timothy Watson, who jumped into action June 15, 2018, to pull Ali Joy, her husband Austin and their young twin daughters out of a rip current. Unfortunately, Mr. Joy, who had jumped into the water with his wife to save his daughters, did not survive the ordeal, but the other family members were rescued, largely thanks to the Marines’ life-saving efforts.
“On June 15, those four Marines were walking on Atlantic Beach just enjoying a day, the sand, the sea,” Maj. Gen. Karsten Heckl, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing commanding general, said during the ceremony in the Two Rivers Theater & Event Center aboard the air station. “All of a sudden, in a split second, they encountered what proved to be a mortal situation, an entire family in dire straits. And in that split second, these Marines went into action, like Marines are prone to do.”
Using a surfboard provided by another beachgoer, the Marines jumped into the water, swam about 150 yards through dangerous rip currents out to where the family was struggling and pulled them to shore. Two of them attempted to resuscitate Mr. Joy until medics arrived on the scene, and all the Marines stayed with the family until further help arrived.
Maj. Gen. Heckl said the Navy and Marine Corps Medal is a rare honor awarded only to distinguished individuals who have undertaken a life-threatening risk in an act of heroism. He said Ms. Joy was instrumental in making sure the Marines who helped save her family were recognized for their efforts.
“If it had not been for the actions of Ali Joy, we wouldn’t be here today, I’m convinced,” Maj. Gen. Heckl said. “…These Marines certainly didn’t go out seeking recognition and Marines aren’t prone to providing recognition, so we are here because of her efforts.”
Cpl. McMullen emphasized he did not act that day because he wanted recognition, but because it was the right thing to do in the moment.
“I’m honored to receive the award, but more importantly I’m honored to be a part of something that is inspirational,” he said. “…It was more after the fact that I thought more about it and realized the danger I put myself in … in the moment it was all action.”
Cpl. McMullen added there were many other people who were instrumental in the rescue effort, from the beachgoers who alerted them there were people struggling in the water, to the surfer who lent the surfboard and emergency personnel who responded to the scene.
Ms. Joy, who is from Ashland, Va., said it was meaningful to see the four Marines who helped her family receive such a high honor. She and her daughters got to formally meet their rescuers for the first time in August 2018.
“It’s very healing,” she said. “I was nervous about coming back here, I don’t think any of us are the same after an event like that. Being reunited, seeing their families, they (the Marines) feel like family now.”
In response to what her family experienced, Ms. Joy has created a nonprofit organization called Float Don’t Fight that aims to raise awareness about what to do if you get caught in a rip current. She hopes to help others avoid the tragedy of losing a loved one like her family did.
“Our mission is to empower everyday beachgoers, like myself that day, with the tools to survive a rip current. (It’s) easily preventable,” she said. “Sadly, many people are dying because they panic, and the message is really to not panic, don’t try to swim or struggle, understand you’re in a rip current and you will not be taken out to sea, you will not go under. You can survive if you float on your back.”
Ms. Joy plans to hold events in Carteret County this year to help spread the word of her organization.
Atlantic Beach Mayor Trace Cooper, Fire Chief Michael Simpson and others from the town attended the award ceremony Tuesday along with the Marines’ families and others.
Contact Elise Clouser at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.