FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Some people say 13 is an unlucky number, but for a swimmer on Carolina Beach on July 13, it turned out to be his lucky day. On that day he was saved from near drowning by Spc. Vernardo Simmons.
Simmons, 22, a medic in the 28th Combat Support Hospital, 44th Medical Command left early the morning of July 13 with some friends headed for Wrightsville Beach. They were looking forward to catching some waves and were motivated by the prospects of riding some big ones stirred up by tropical storm Bertha.
Simmons, originally from Jacksonville, Fla., said he's been surfing since he was about 18 but had never really surfed big waves. That day he said the ocean was rough with 5 and 6 foot waves and there were quite a few people on the beach.
"Like when you got in the water, you'd get like maybe five yards off shore and you'd get tossed around because it got really deep real quick out there." After surfing Wrightsville Beach for a while, the group decided to head for Carolina Beach.
As he surfed Carolina Beach, Simmons said he went back to shore to get some water and as he was paddling back out to continue surfing, he noticed a swimmer who seemed to be in trouble.
"I was paddling just past the break and I saw a guy getting thrown around ... he was bobbing up and down. I saw him trying to swim back to shore but he wasn't getting anywhere. He was pretty far out there and he was getting tired ... I told him he was caught in a rip current to try to relax, but he didn't look like he was going to make it. I tried to get a lifeguard out there but they were taking too long, so I paddled in there with my board and got him on the front of it." To get himself and his "passenger" back to the beach safely, Simmons said he didn't try to fight the current.
"You don't fight the rip current, you let it take you. So, ... once I got him on the board I let the current take us out (and once we were out of the rip current) then we paddled parallel to the beach." Simmons said when they got about 30 yards from shore, the lifeguards met them and took over. Simmons said he never found out the swimmer's name. Fortunately the swimmer didn't need CPR and was okay.
Simmons says he is not a strong swimmer. "I 'm a decent swimmer, I can like chill out on my own but I have my surf board so I'm not too worried."
Simmons feels the important thing to know what to do when caught in a rip current. Most people panic and instinctively try to swim back to shore and that's where most drown because you can't swim against a rip tide he explained.
But Simmons is a modest man and he tried to downplay his lifesaving role at the beach.
"Honestly, I didn't think it was such a big deal. I mean ... no decent person would watch somebody drown," said Simmons. However, Capt. Jason Graham, commander Company B, 28th CSH, who was at the beach that day saw things differently.
"The gentleman that Specialist Simmons saved would not have made it or would have had to be resuscitated on the beach ... by the time the lifeguards would have gotten to him ... it was pretty far out there, I don't think the lifeguards even saw him. Specialist Simmons actions were truly heroic," said Graham.
Simmons, who joined the Army in September 2005, said he's use to dealing with life and death situations regularly. He deployed to Iraq from September 2006 to November 2007 and worked first in the outpatient clinic and then in the Baghdad emergency room, which he described as an "awesome experience." Simmons said he didn't really see a correlation between saving the swimmer at the beach and what he did in Iraq. Explaining that in Iraq he was working and doing his job and at the beach he was just hanging out.
"When I'm in Iraq I'm doing the job I signed up to do. You kinda feel weird when people come up to you and say 'thank you' (for what you do) because I signed up to do a job, one that I try to do to the best of my ability."
Simmons recently reenlisted for three years and based on what he describes as an "awesome" experience, said he plans to pursue a career in the medical field.