AWG Soldier rescues South African, receives Soldier's Medal
March 27, 2012
FORT EUSTIS, Va. (March 27, 2012) -- A U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group Soldier was awarded the Soldier's Medal March 23 during a ceremony held in his honor at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command headquarters on Fort Eustis, Va.
Gen. Robert W. Cone, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command commanding general, presented the medal to Master Sgt. Joshua E. Powell, an operational adviser for the Asymmetric Warfare Group, or AWG, for saving the life of a drowning South African soldier Sept. 17, 2011, while participating in the training exercise Southern Warrior in South Africa.
Southern Warrior was a joint multinational integrated exercise where the scenario required special forces soldiers from Southern African Development Community countries to react to several emergencies strategic in nature. Powell, among other AWG members, participated in the exercise to advise on village stability operations.
According to Powell, on one particular day of the exercise, the weather was unseasonably warm -- between 50 and 60 degrees. The Soldiers participating in the exercise were located ocean side on a beachfront. When the opportunity presented itself, they went into the water to wash and cool themselves off.
One South African soldier, who couldn't swim, waded deeper into the water than his comrades. Within seconds, the soldier was pulled deeper into the ocean by the strong current.
"My first thought was 'this is not happening,'" said Powell, who did not have any previous lifeguard experience. "One minute we are speaking to [our South African comrades] about the scenario, the next thing we are hearing was 'HELP! HELP!'"
The current was pulling the soldier deeper into the ocean, but Powell said he felt that something had to be done despite the turbulent conditions, so he went in after the soldier. Powell said his response to entering the ocean was second nature.
"As soon as I had seen and identified what was happening, I immediately began removing my uniform," he said. "I thought it would reduce the drag [while swimming]."
Powell swam more than 200 meters and said he was exhausted and overwhelmed by the water he had swallowed by the time he reached the soldier. In addition to dealing with the distance and the strong current, Powell said he was challenged by other obstacles, including low water temperatures, which made it difficult to breathe; and the language barrier, which complicated communication efforts with the drowning soldier.
"The current pulled me under quite a few times before hitting land," Powell said. "There was a point where I believed we were both in danger."
While exhausted and cold, both Soldiers were overall in good health when they made it to shore, and for Powell's actions, the South African soldier was grateful.
"If it were not for Sergeant First Class Powell's bravery, I would have drowned," the soldier said. "I didn't know what to do and I was scared,"
Powell attributes his quick response to the values the Army has taught him throughout his military career.
"Loyalty and personal courage," Powell said. "Life is always more important than hardware."
When presenting Powell the Soldier's Medal in front of an audience of his family members, other senior military personnel and peers, Cone echoed Powell's regard for living the Army Values.
"When I talk about valor, I believe it's a character issue," Cone said. "The issue is there's no time to think; either you have it in your heart and soul to do the right thing, or you don't. And in this case, this tremendous noncommissioned officer who certainly has all of the markings of one of the Army's finest NCOs, did the right thing to save a life."
"I am truly humbled and honored by the whole situation," Powell said. "I never thought that it would mean so much. I did what needed to be done -- to help a comrade in need."
The U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group provides operational advisory global support to Army and Joint Force commanders to enhance Soldier survivability, combat effectiveness and enable the defeat of current and emerging threats in support of Unified Land Operations. The unit reports directly to the commanding general of TRADOC and provides linkage for the command to the operational force.