It was Memorial Day weekend 2019, and the beach at Morehead, North Carolina, was full of families enjoying the sun and surf.
Yards out from shore, however, danger was lurking under the surface of the water.
Three young boys were playing in the water, further out from shore than any other children. That raised a red flag in the mind of a nearby Navy SEAL who had similarly brought his family to the beach for the long weekend. At least six people had drowned at the beach the year before, pulled under water by dangerous riptides.
“These kids stuck out to me because they were playing just a little deeper than any of the other kids,” the SEAL said in a DOD 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.”
The SEAL could tell the children were drifting further away from shore. Their father must have thought the same thing, as he soon ran out into thew water to call them back.
“That’s when I knew that the situation was bad,” the SEAL said.
The Navy SEAL asked someone to call 9-1-1, grabbed a child’s boogie board and swam out to the children himself. He reached the father holding two of the boys and gave them the board.
Then he saw a third child about 25 yards away.
“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.”
The SEAL attempted to swim back to shore but the rip current was pulling just as hard in the opposite direction. The situation was getting dire.
“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.”
Fighting rip currents just happens to be one of the threats that Navy SEAL’s train to overcome in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Training.
“Everything about rip currents, and surf zones I learned in BUD/S,” 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.”
Ten minutes later, the SEAL had swam clear of the rip current and handed the 5-year-old off to a Marine who assisted in bringing the child back to shore.
By then, the father and two other children were even farther away. The SEAL water no time in swimming back.
“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 said.
The SEAL put his head down to propel himself through the waves. But when he looked up, only two figures remained.
“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.
Rescue swimmers and another man on a jet ski came out to assist, but could not find any sign of the boys’ father, later identified as Ernest Foster II, a 38-year-old school teacher.
After news of the incident spread online, many had criticized the father for putting his children in danger. But their criticism was completely off base, the SEAL maintains. Foster II died a hero.
“I was the only one who saw everything from start to finish,” the SEAL 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 made sure Foster II’s wife understood that her children were still alive because of her husband. He also stood up to speak at the man’s funeral.
“I was able to set the record straight,” 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.”
For his courage, the SEAL was awarded the 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.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.