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3 Fort Drum soldiers receive Soldier’s Medals for heroism

Monday, December 01, 2014

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff awarded the Soldier’s Medal to three Fort Drum soldiers for their actions in helping to save a distressed boater on the Black River.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey presented the awards after a Town Hall meeting at Fort Drum, N.Y., to Spc. Christopher L. Grant, a paralegal specialist assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade; Pfc. Matthew M. Phillips, a cavalry scout formerly assigned to 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team; and Pvt. Trenton M. Brown, a hydraulic repair specialist assigned to B Company, 277th Aviation Support Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Phillips is now assigned to 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, at Fort Riley, Kan.

"I’ve always felt that the Soldier’s Medal is one of those awards that doesn’t get enough credit for being as important as it is," Dempsey said.

Adding, "When you’re in combat and you execute an act of heroism, it’s almost expected. When something happens when you’re at home or in a garrison environment, or in this instance, in a recreational environment, you’re not expected to have to demonstrate courage or heroism, and so it seems to me to reflect not just heroism but also incredible agility.

"You know, you can go from it being a recreational afternoon on the Black River to, ‘Oh my God, there’s a couple that I have to save!’

He added. "I think it’s an incredible award for these three young men and I’m really proud of them."

The Soldier’s Medal is awarded to any member of the United States Army who, while serving in any capacity, distinguishes himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.

The performance must have involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy.

The incident

North Country temperatures were still dropping into the 30s last spring after one of the area’s coldest and harshest winters on record. On April 21, Grant and Brown were with their families fishing on the banks of the frigid Black River. The fast-moving water, frozen along large swaths just months earlier, was not many degrees above freezing.

Shortly after dropping their lines into water, the two soldiers noticed a couple on the opposite bank launching a canoe into the swift current. Minutes later, the canoe had overturned and the boaters’ cries for help could be heard echoing over the fierce river currents.

"Once they saw us, they both pushed off of the boat and started trying to swim to us," said Grant, a native of Grand Rapids, Minn.

Adding, "I noticed right off that the male appeared to be a strong swimmer by the way he started swimming from the boat. The current was fighting him hard, and I think when he noticed the female was having trouble swimming, he chose to stay with her."

Realizing the distressed boaters needed immediate assistance, Grant ran to his truck to retrieve a 100-foot rope and immediately sprang into action.

The two soldiers unraveled the rope, tied a heavy stick to the end for weight and made several attempts to throw it out to the couple, but came up short each time, the last attempt coming about 15 feet from them.

By this time, Grant estimated the couple had been in the river nearly 15 minutes.

"As I attempted to throw the rope again, the back current caught them and started dragging them back towards the [boat] launch," Grant said.

He added, "It was at this point that the male began trying to hold the female up, causing him to go under and take on water. We ran back from the dock to the launch, and I noticed the male go under."

It was around this time when Phillips, a former lifeguard from St. Paul, Va., arrived at the Black River and immediately realized something wasn’t right.

"Right when I pulled up, I saw everybody running, screaming ‘they’re drowning!’" Phillips said. "Of all who were there, I was the best equipped to get into the water, but [the couple] was not close enough [for me] to swim out and back."

Phillips immediately grabbed the stick end of the rope and rushed into the fast moving waters as Brown and Grant tied a second rope to the line Phillips was swimming to the boater.

At this point, all three 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) soldiers were in the 36-degree water as emergency first responders drew near.

"I ran from the launch up to the road and saw them stop on the bridge," said Brown, a native of Flynn, Texas, of the emergency response vehicles. "I flagged them down and guided them to the scene."

Meanwhile, as Phillips swam with the stick-end of the rope toward the woman, Grant waded out into the water up to his chest while holding the other end of the rope.

Phillips took hold of the woman, securing her under the armpits and yelled "pull!" Grant pulled them in as quickly as he could. As Phillips brought her to shore, Grant ran to them and carried the woman onto the beach. Brown brought whatever he could find to warm her, such as blankets and sweatshirts.

For their actions, Brown, Grant and Philips are credited with saving the woman’s life.

Unfortunately, the soldiers were not able to save the second victim whose body was recovered days later.

"If I could have gotten to the man, I would have, but I just couldn’t get to him," Phillips said.

Brown said it appeared the couple was holding each other as they went down the river and that the man was pushing the woman up until he ultimately disappeared below the water.

"He gave his life to save her," he said. "That’s the hardest part."