A Turlock native is not only making his hometown proud with his life of service in the military, but his actions during a harrowing rescue at sea received national attention as he was recently presented the Department of Homeland Security Secretary’s Award for Valor.
While the details of the rescue at sea that the U.S. Coast Guard crew out of Air Station Sitka, Alaska executed in 2020 sound like the plot of a movie, the experience was anything but Hollywood magic, said Turlock native Lt. Justin Neal, who was the pilot of the rescue helicopter.
At 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 1, 2020 an alarm sounded at Air Station Sitka. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) registered to fishing vessel Irony had been activated in Earnest Sound, 150 miles southeast of Sitka. The crew departed the air station as a low-pressure storm system battered Southeast Alaska.
Low altitude freezing levels, total darkness and near zero visibility required the aircrew to almost double the normal distance to a 265-mile transit around rugged terrain rising to 5,000 feet above the water. The increased transit length was compounded by a 70-mph headwind offshore which resulted in reduced speed, leaving the crew to focus on fuel planning with initial estimates allowing them only minutes on scene.
“Normally, we would have plenty of fuel and would have a lot of time on station so we could find the individual and have a long time to search and fly to another airport that was nearby. In this case, we only had about a half hour wandering on scene to locate the survivor and then rescue him,” said Neal.
Twelve miles from Ernest Sound, the EPIRB was heard by the flight crew and the copilot spotted a strobe light left of the aircraft. As the pilots carefully overflew the light to mark its position and set up an approach to the water, the rescue swimmer spotted through the helicopter’s infrared camera a single survivor clinging to debris.
The rescue swimmer guided the flight mechanic’s searchlight to the survivor’s location to ensure the crew could maintain visual contact. The pilots were unable to turn the helicopter due to unrelenting winds, so the flight mechanic guided the pilots back toward the survivor and briefed the deployment and recovery plan.
In an effort to make sure the survivor was not subjected to the helicopter’s rotor wash, the rescue swimmer was deployed into the water upwind of the debris. Receiving vectors from the pilots through a hand-held radio, the rescue swimmer swam through darkness and 12-foot waves for more than 10 minutes to reach the survivor who was then safely hoisted into the helicopter.
Once in the cabin, the aircrew confirmed no additional crew aboard the sunken fishing vessel, provided care to the hypothermic survivor, and transported him to Ketchikan. A city-wide power outage, continued low ceilings and poor visibility led the pilots to request the awaiting ambulance turn on their lights to assist them in locating the small helipad along the dark shoreline of town. Once on deck the survivor was transferred to emergency medical personnel.
“I just want to highlight the team effort that this was and how much of a team effort all these rescues are. And when you go on the water to make sure you realize this and have a plan. Because if this gentleman wouldn't have had his survival gear on and wouldn't have had his radio beacon, he wouldn't have survived. We would never have even known he was out in the water,” said Neal.
A video of the air rescue can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDQwCw-Xl7o
Neal said the rescue was the most challenging in his career and conditions he would prefer not to fly in ever again.
“I’m glad I was able to be there. I’m glad me and my crew were able to work together to execute this rescue, but I hope to never have to fly in those conditions and do it again,” said Neal.
In May 2021, Rear Adm. Nathan A. Moore, commander, Coast Guard 17th District, presented Air Medals to Lt. Neal, pilot; Lt. Jonathan Orthman, copilot; Petty Officer 2nd Class James Schwader, flight mechanic; and Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Roberts, rescue swimmer.
Neal was notified just a week before the April 13 ceremony earlier this month that he and his crew had been selected for the DHS Secretary’s Award of Valor.
The Secretary’s Award for Valor is the highest recognition for extraordinary acts of valor occurring either on or off duty. The employee will have demonstrated selfless response by performing courageously in a highly dangerous or life-threatening situation to protect another’s life or to save significant assets or infrastructure from harm.
“I was very honored to have the opportunity to get it and be there with the Secretary,” said Neal.
Neal’s Award of Valor comes following a 16-year career in the military. A 2003 Turlock High graduate, Neal attended San Francisco State University and Boston University before joining the Army in 2006. He served in the Army from 2006 to 2014, before transferring to the Coast Guard.
Neal said he decided to join the Coast Guard because he wanted to be able to spend more time with his family. During his Army years, Neal was stationed in Hawaii, but was deployed overseas at two different times.
“I wanted a different life. I want to be around my girls more and the Coast Guard provides that opportunity because the work that we do is here in the homeland,” he said.
Asked if he had any advice to young people considering a life of military service, Neal said: “Find what you want to do, find what you’re interested in and then proceed to go talk to somebody who does that job.”
While the military life isn’t for everyone, said Neal, it is worth the work and sacrifice.
“There's no greater reward than serving your country,” he said.