A few friends invited me on a weekend trip to Panama City Beach, Fla. At the time, we were about six months into our flight school training at Fort Rucker, Ala., and had definitely earned a break from our studies. I packed an overnight bag and we headed south to the beach.

The next morning, we headed out onto the beach. I was feeling a little under the weather from the previous evening's activities, so my goal for the day was to lie in the sun and relax. I was doing just that when the guys asked me to join them in the water. I knew I wasn't a strong swimmer and the waves were pretty large, but I figured I'd just jump in for a second to cool off.

At first, we were laughing and letting the waves crash into us. I didn't intend to go in past where I could touch the bottom with my feet, but as I was jumping through a wave, I lost my balance. It all happened so fast that I was oblivious to the fact that the current was pulling me out. I looked over at my buddies and one of them asked if I was OK. They were farther out than I and looked to be turning to come back to shore. I answered that I was fine. I decided I should also head back to shore. That's when I realized I was in trouble.

Waves began crashing over my head. I was swimming and swimming but wasn't going anywhere. One of my friends saw me struggling and yelled for help, but the sound of the waves muffled his cries. I joined in, trying not to panic, remembering what I had watched on television about rip currents. However, the waves were relentless and wouldn't stop crashing over my head. I didn't know how much longer I was going to be able to stay afloat. The guys were yelling words of encouragement. I tried swimming parallel to the shore, but I still wasn't moving.

I then started to panic. I thought about a discussion we had in the car on the drive down about how being an aviator is one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army. I thought, "How ironic, I'm going to die, but the cause is not going to be related to flying. All of this work in the Army was for nothing." I then thought of my Family.

As my head went underwater, I thought, "This is it." I was exhausted from fighting the current and out of ideas on how to save myself. Suddenly, someone grabbed my arm, pulled me to the surface and told me to relax. It was one of my friends, who, fortunately for me, had been a lifeguard prior to flight school. He put his hands on my waist and pushed me up out of the water so I could breathe. We eventually made it to shore, where he helped me to my towel. I was in complete shock. I had to go to the car and sit for a few minutes to compose myself.

If you get caught in a rip current:

• Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
• Don't fight the current. Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim toward shore.
• If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim toward shore.
• If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself -- face the shore, wave your arms and yell for help.
• If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 911. Throw the rip current victim something that floats and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.

I should have done many things differently that day. I'm lucky that I'm able to share my story; some folks don't get the chance.

w/ info boxes below


Before your next beach trip, keep the following tips in mind:
• Get yourself familiar. Google the beach you're visiting so you can find information such as if there is a lifeguard on duty, the condition of the water, etc.
• Pay attention to the warning flags. Know what the different colors mean, as well your swimming experience level.
• Trust your instincts. If it doesn't feel safe, it probably isn't safe.

Visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website at
http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/tips.shtml for more rip current safety tips

Did You Know?

Water-related fatalities were on the rise during fiscal 2011, with 11 Soldiers losing their lives to drowning or boating accidents. The U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center developed the Water Safety interactive website to promote water safety awareness through user challenges, informational videos and links to related safety resources. The site provides realistic challenges and scenarios Soldiers and their Family members are likely to encounter while at the beach, lake, pool or other bodies of water. Visit https://safety.army.mil/SafetyCity to learn more.