FORT RUCKER, Ala. (April 4, 2013) -- CW3 Ronald Sandler did not expect he would be standing on stage next to the chief of staff of the Army April 1, but this was no April fool's joke.

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno presented the Soldiers Medal at the post theater to Sandler, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot who is currently a platoon leader with 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment, for a selfless act of bravery in September 2012 when Sandler and two fellow service members saved the lives of two civilians in Florida.

"Chief Sandler's integrity, personal courage and selfless service represent what is best about our Army," Odierno said.

The Soldiers Medal is given to individuals who distinguish themselves through acts of heroism and is the highest honor a Soldier can receive for an act of valor in a noncombat situation.

Sandler, his wife, Kelli, and fellow service members were at Florida's gulf coast having lunch during Labor Day weekend in 2012 when they heard a call for help. A child was caught in a rip current, and Sandler and his comrades were able to bring the child and her father to safety.

"I'd never felt a rip current, but the water was below my knees and it was almost pulling me down," Sandler said.

Sandler was surprised to see his wife and her parents, Brian and Gayle Willett, gathered at the post theater, along with fellow Soldiers who had deployed previously with Sandler who came to the ceremony to show their support. They, along with Sandler's first sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Greg Turpin, planned the event in secret.

"It was a complete surprise," Sandler said. "They kept it a pretty good secret from me."