An East Coast-based Navy SEAL who swam into a rip current to save three young boys from drowning was recognized for his courage last month with a Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism.

“His problem solving, grit, and humility is [a] powerful testimony to our standard for character and service that we — the men and women of Naval Special Warfare — aspire to serve each day,” said Rear Adm. H. W. Howard III, chief of Naval Special Warfare Command, in a press release about the SEAL’s award, which was presented to him in a small ceremony on Sept. 22.

The SEAL, whose name was not revealed due to operational security and privacy concerns, was at the beach in Morehead, North Carolina over Memorial Day weekend in 2019 when he spotted the three boys playing in the water farther out than anybody else.

The SEAL kept an eye on them — six people had already drowned at Morehead’s Atlantic Beach so far that year, more than in all of 2018. In fact, the SEAL and his wife almost decided not to bring their own family to the beach that day out of fear it would be too dangerous.

“These kids stuck out to me because they were playing just a little deeper than any of the other kids,” he said in the press release. “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.”

Military Awards photo

Walking closer to the ocean, the SEAL saw the kids were slowly drifting away, but they were not splashing or screaming. It was quiet as he grabbed a youth-size boogie board, walked the shoreline, and watched them. Then, he saw the boys’ father bolt into the water towards them.

“That’s when I knew that the situation was bad,” the SEAL recalled.

As the father screamed for help, the SEAL told his own family to call 911 before he made his way to where the father was treading water while holding up two children, trying to keep their heads above water. The sailor gave the father the boogie board and saw the third child 25 yards away. The SEAL immediately swam to the child’s 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. Knowing this, the sailor swam hard despite his fear that he couldn’t get back to shore because the rip current was pushing him out.

“I was pretty smoked by that point,” he said. “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 swam, the SEAL thought of how grateful he was for his training.

“Everything about rip currents, and surf zones I learned in BUD/S [the SEAL assessment, selection, and training program],” he said. “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.”

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Ten minutes later, the sailor escaped the rip zone and reached the surf zone, where a nearby Marine helped bring him and the child back to shore. The SEAL left the child with the Marine, then turned back to the father and two boys, who were now about 125 yards offshore. Pushing through his fatigue, the SEAL got back in the water and began to make his way back out to them.

“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,” he recalled. 

However, when he passed the surf zone, he looked up and couldn’t see the father 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,” he said.

The SEAL got the boys onto a larger boogie board he had brought with him, then looked around for the father but could not find him. Less than a minute later, rescue swimmers and a jet ski arrived. The swimmers searched for the man while the SEAL took the boys back to shore.

Ernest Foster II, a 38-year-old school teacher, died trying to save his children. After the incident, the SEAL saw social media commenters blaming Foster for what happened. The SEAL could not have agreed less.

“I was the only one who saw everything from start to finish,” he said. ”The reports painted him 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 first-hand account of what actually happened.

“I was able to set the record straight and was asked to speak at his funeral,” he said. “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.”

The SEAL keeps in touch with Foster’s mother.