By Lt. Col. Joe AllegrettiDecember 2, 2008
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (Army News Service, Dec. 2, 2008) - An American noncommissioned officer deployed to the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines was awarded the Soldier's Medal Nov. 27 for risking his life to save three Filipino college students from drowning last year.
Staff Sgt. Ruben D. Gonzalez heard calls for help Sept. 30, 2007, along the shores at Naval Station Zamboanga in the Southern Philippines, and he sprang into action.
Arthur M. Atilano witnessed the events. He said, "One of the kids got pulled by the current and brought him in the deep area below the pier. Then, two teenagers tried to save the kid. The two teenagers were also pulled to the deep water. That was when they started calling for help."
Students and staff of Zamboanga's MEIN College were enjoying a day at the beach, celebrating the college's "Foundation Day," when the three students got caught in the dangerous current and were dragged into deep, unsafe water.
"The water current that day was incredibly strong; even the LCT (a 65-ton naval vessel) could not dock at the pier," said Sgt. Sausha T. Jones of the JSOTF-P.
Gonzalez was in the area performing logistics work. Seeing and hearing the situation begin to unravel, he quickly dove headfirst into the water and went for the most exhausted swimmer first.
Grabbing the victim around the chest, Gonzalez swam him to the nearest pier piling, which served as a makeshift life-preserver. Telling the student to hold the piling as tightly as possible, Gonzalez swam back out for the other two distressed swimmers, pulling them both through the current to the nearest pier piling.
"I was so tired and exhausted, I could not hang on [to the piling] and accepted that I was going to die," said the first swimmer Gonzalez rescued.
Seeing Philippine Navy personnel throwing flotation devices down to the distressed swimmers, Gonzalez shouted out words of encouragement to hang on a little longer.
Upon reaching the beach, Philippine Navy medics tended to the victims. After it was clear the students were ashore and in good hands, Gonzalez left the growing crowd of onlookers, unnoticed. He got back in his vehicle and, despite several cuts on his arms, hands, legs, and feet, returned to duty.
"Knowing the danger on putting his life at risk to rescue my students is a heroism act that forever will be embedded in our hearts, for without him that very moment, my students would have died," said MEIN College teacher and eye-witness, Margie Janda. "Thank God for giving us Mr. Gonzalez."
(Lt. Col. Joe Allegretti serves as public affairs officer for the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.)