Kadena officer awarded Airman's Medal saving man's life at sea
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- A Kadena Airman was awarded the Airman's Medal at a ceremony here March 20.
First Lt. Dayton Gilbreath, 18th Contracting Squadron contracting administrator, was awarded the medal for rescuing an Airman who jumped overboard from a sailing ship in the Adriatic Sea July 3, 2012. The Airman's Medal is awarded to service members of any country or branch who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Air Force, distinguish themselves by heroic actions in a non-combat environment.
Following his graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Gilbreath, his lacrosse teammates and several other USAFA athletes rented a 52-foot boat and began sailing from port to port in the Mediterranean region. As the only passenger with sailing experience, Gilbreath often helped the skipper with two-man jobs such as raising and lowering the sails.
One morning as the boat sailed through the Adriatic Sea, a storm rolled in, creating high winds the group hoped would get them to their destination quicker than expected.
As Gilbreath helped the skipper raise the sails, he saw an Airman who had been acting strangely for most of the trip take a running leap off of the vessel.
"Myself and the skipper were the only ones who saw him run off the back of the boat," Gilbreath said. "I looked at the skipper, and there was just straight fear in his face. I told him I was going in after him, and I dove in."
Gilbreath swam up to the Airman, who promptly dove underwater in an attempt to drown himself. After retrieving his unconscious body, Gilbreath returned to the surface only to discover that the boat hadn't turned around for them.
Panicking, Gilbreath tried to calm himself down while keeping both his head and the larger, unconscious Airman's head above water.
As the Airman in his arms regained consciousness, Gilbreath knew he would need to think of a way to get both of them back to the boat. Since dragging one of the largest Airmen on the trip through crashing waves against his will would likely not work, Gilbreath had to get creative.
"He was in a couple of my classes, but I didn't know anything about him besides that he's a football player, so I thought he must be competitive," Gilbreath said. "I said 'I'll race you to the boat,' and sure enough he took off swimming toward the boat."
The pair took off swimming toward the boat. After a few minutes, the Airman stopped about 20 feet from Gilbreath and began rambling incoherently. Determined to end his life, he dove underwater a second time, prompting Gilbreath to dive after him and pull him to the surface once more.
Luckily, the boat had lowered its sails and turned around by this point and was close enough to toss a life saver to Gilbreath, which the Airmen onboard used to pull him and the other Airman onto the safety of the boat's deck.
Once onboard, the Airman ran into the cabin and grabbed a knife, intending to stab himself. The remaining 10 passengers on the boat wrestled it from his hands and, at Gilbreath's suggestion, tied him up to prevent him from hurting himself or anyone else.
When the boat reached shore about two hours later, Gilbreath chose to accompany the Airman to a hospital in the Croatian city of Split instead of continuing the trip with his friends.
"I thought I was going to die," Gilbreath said. "It was a very humbling, surreal experience, and I'm very happy with the way things turned out. Last I heard from him, he's doing well."
Brig. Gen. James B. Hecker, 18th Wing commander, presented the medal and took the opportunity to recognize the significance of Gilbreath's actions.
"There are not a lot of people who can say 'hey, I saved a life,'" Hecker said. "To do it the heroic way he did it makes it that much more special."
While happy with the outcome of the situation, Gilbreath humbly dismisses the notion that his actions were heroic, insisting he was just doing what he thought to be the right thing.
"He was from the academy; we're all family," Gilbreath said. "There was no thought, it's just something you do."