Fort Bragg, N.C. — U.S. Army Maj. Kenneth Leahy, a North Carolina National Guard dental officer, was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal during an award ceremony at the NCNG Medical Readiness Detachment on Dec. 3, 2022.
Leahy was recognized before his peers, family and senior leaders for his heroism after rescuing a distressed 10-year old child from drowning caught in turbulent water over 200 yards away from shore.
“I was in the right place at the right time," said Leahy. "I thank God that I didn’t hesitate, and having my kids see me do a selfless act is its own reward. This isn’t the first time I have done it, and I will continue to do it. I can’t run, but I can swim!”
On July 4, 2022, Leahy and his family were swimming at North Topsail Beach when other beach patrons and the child’s family started shouting “She can’t swim. She can’t swim.” Leahy immediately swam to her aid and evaluated her medical condition while in the water. Leahy constantly re-evaluated her condition, while simultaneously swimming toward shore. During their egress, they were met with turbulent waves, one holding them under water for over eight seconds. After the wave passed, he safely got the child back to shore and continued rendering aid until emergency medical services arrived.
“I swam out and caught up to her,” said Leahy. “I rolled her onto her back. She was unresponsive.”
Leahy said he made sure she regained consciousness before starting back to shore.
“We had somebody swim up with a boogie board," Leahy said. “I got it under her and we started swimming back. When we got to the waves where the breakers were, a big one came. I just remember grabbing her as hard as I could. It rolled us and slammed me down. I thought I lost her, but I still had her. I swam back up [to the surface] and we got her back out.”
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Matt Baer, the sector commander of North Carolina presented Leahy with the award. Baer oversees maritime search and rescue operations for the coastline and in-shore waters of N.C. Assets he oversees respond to maritime distress calls that come through their 24-hour manned operations center.
“Were always concerned when a person is in the water or in distress,” said Baer. “Inlets have fast flowing currents. In this case based upon the currents, she was going to be taken offshore. We launched a rescue boat and a Coast Guard helicopter out of Elizabeth City because we didn’t know where she was going to go. We did have a search and rescue action plan, but fortunately Maj. Leahy got there before we had the need to. [The commendation medal is] the highest award I can award as a captain in the United States Coast Guard. We looked at it as, this person hazarded their life to go out and took heroic action and they saved a life! Were just proud of him and I’m honored.”
Leahy said this is the fifth person he has saved from drowning in the ocean over his lifetime.
“I have always been a good swimmer,” Leahy said. “Swimming is always natural for me. I have never had a fear of the ocean because you can float but you still have to have a respect for it because at any time things can go horribly wrong.”
“He doesn’t go swimming at the pool to keep his skills sharp, said Shannon, Leahy’s wife. He just saw a need to swim, so he went. That was probably the longest distance that he has swam in years.”
His family is honored that he is receiving this award.
“I’m grateful.,” said Shannon. “He never did it to be recognized, but he should be recognized because it’s important that he did this. It is really nice. I’m very proud.”
U.S. Army Col. Michael Marciniak, the 60th Troop Command commander was also in attendance at the award ceremony. He took a moment to recognize Leahy’s valiant act, but also spoke to other service members in the medical detachment about their role in the medical readiness of North Carolina.
“I want to thank each and every one of you for what you do each and every day,” said Marciniak. “When I was listening to the citation for Maj. Leahy, one of the things that came to my mind was in our mission statement; to protect lives and the property of our citizens in North Carolina. That is what he has done. Maj. Leahy wasn’t in his uniform. He was probably in his swim trunks hanging out with his family, but he executed that mission. I’m also standing in front of a bunch of medical professionals whose job is to do that every day. I’m very proud of you. I appreciate what you are doing for our Nation and state. You are building readiness and you are taking care of our people.”