New D17 commander awards aircrew for November rescue

Between near-zero visibility and a 70 mph headwind, conditions were far from ideal.

Rear Adm. Nathan A. Moore, the recently appointed commander of the Coast Guard’s 17th District, awarded four Coast Guardsmen for their role in an at-sea rescue last November.

Air Medals were awarded to pilot and copilot Lt. Justin Neal and Lt. Jonathan Orthman as well as to flight mechanic Petty Officer 2nd Class James Schwader and rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Roberts.

“It is an honor for me to present the Air Medal to this crew who put their lives at risk and overcame extremely challenging conditions to save a life at sea,” Moore said in a news release. “I am incredibly proud of them.”

The award came from a search-and-rescue incident on Nov. 1, 2020. The ready aircrew scrambled in the early evening when an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, registered to a fishing vessel was triggered, indicating the vessel had foundered.

A bruising winter storm was affecting the whole region, according to the Coast Guard, bringing freezing temperatures close to sea level, visibility to nearly zero, and winds to 70 mph offshore. The foul weather and mountainous terrain inshore nearly doubled the transit distance, which would leave rescuers with only about 15 minutes on scene, according to the Coast Guard.

The flight crew was able to navigate a tighter course as visibility improved, according to the news release. Homing in on the signal and the strobe from the EPIRB, the flight crew was able to locate a single survivor clinging to the debris. As the pilots maintained position against the headwind, Roberts entered the water.

Roberts swam for 10 minutes in the freezing water against 12 foot waves to the survivor, securing him to be hoisted aboard the aircraft. Confirming that he was the only survivor, the aircraft flew to Ketchikan while the aircrew provided medical assistance for hypothermia. With Ketchikan’s power out, the aircraft had to rely on the lights of the waiting ambulance to land at a small helipad in the town, according to the Coast Guard.

The Air Medal is awarded to aircrews for heroic or exceptional flight, and has been awarded to servicemembers such as Buzz Aldrin, Jimmy Doolittle, John McCain and Tammy Duckworth.

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or