A Turlock native not only does his hometown proud with his life of service in the military, but his actions during a harrowing rescue at sea have garnered national attention as he recently received the Secretary of the Department of homeland security for bravery.

While the details of the sea rescue that the U.S. Coast Guard crew from Sitka Air Force Station, Alaska performed in 2020 sound like the plot of a movie, the experience was anything but magical in Hollywood. , said Lt. Justin Neal, originally from Turlock, who was the pilot of the rescue helicopter.

At 5:30 p.m. on November 1, 2020, an alarm sounded at Sitka Air Force Station. An emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) recorded on the fishing vessel Irony had been activated in Earnest Sound, 150 miles southeast of Sitka. The crew left the air station as a low-pressure storm system battered southeast Alaska.

Low-level freezing levels, total darkness and near-zero visibility forced the crew to nearly double the normal distance for a 265-mile transit around rugged terrain rising 5,000 feet above some water. The increased transit length was compounded by a 70mph headwind offshore which resulted in a reduction in speed leaving the crew to focus on fuel planning with initial estimates allowing them only a few minutes on the spot.

“Normally we would have plenty of fuel and plenty of time on station so we could find the individual and have plenty of time to search and fly to another airport that was nearby. In this case, we only had about half an hour to wander the scene to locate the survivor and then rescue them,” Neal said.

Twelve miles from Ernest Sound, the EPIRB was heard by the flight crew and the co-pilot spotted a strobe light to the left of the aircraft. As the pilots carefully hovered over the light to mark its position and set up an approach to the water, the rescuer spotted through the helicopter’s infrared camera a lone survivor clinging to debris.

The rescue swimmer guided the flight engineer’s searchlight to the survivor’s location to ensure the crew could maintain visual contact. The pilots were unable to turn the helicopter due to unrelenting winds, so the flight engineer guided the pilots to the survivor and briefed the deployment and recovery plan.

In order to ensure that the survivor was not subjected to helicopter rotor downwash, the rescue swimmer was deployed in the water upwind of the debris. Receiving vectors from the pilots via a handheld radio, the rescue swimmer swam in darkness and 12ft waves for more than 10 minutes to reach the survivor who was then hoisted safely into the helicopter.

Once in the cabin, the crew confirmed that there were no additional crew aboard the sunken fishing vessel, provided care to the hypothermic survivor, and transported him to Ketchikan. A city-wide power outage, low ceilings and poor visibility led pilots to ask the waiting ambulance to turn on their lights to help them locate the small helipad along the dark shoreline of the city. Once on deck, the survivor was transferred to emergency medical personnel.

“I just want to highlight what a team effort it has been and how all of these rescues are a team effort. And when you go out on the water make sure you realize that and have a plan. Because if this gentleman hadn’t had his survival gear and hadn’t had his beacon, he wouldn’t have survived. We would never have known he was in the water,” said said Neal.

A video of the air rescue can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDQwCw-Xl7o

Neal said the rescue was the most difficult of his career and in conditions he would rather never fly in again.

“I’m glad I could be there. I’m glad my crew and I were able to work together to execute this rescue, but hopefully I never have to fly in these conditions and do it again,” said Neal.

In May 2021, Rear Admiral Nathan A. Moore, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, presented air medals to Lt. Neal, pilot; Lt. Jonathan Orthman, co-pilot; Petty Officer 2nd Class James Schwader, flight mechanic; and Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Roberts, lifeguard.

Neal was notified just a week before the April 13 ceremony earlier this month that he and his crew had been shortlisted for the DHS Secretary’s Bravery Award.

The Secretary’s Award for Bravery is the highest recognition for extraordinary acts of bravery that occur on or off duty. The employee will have demonstrated a selfless response by acting courageously in a life-threatening or life-threatening situation to protect the lives of others or to save important assets or infrastructure.

“I was so honored to have the opportunity to get it and be there with the secretary,” Neal said.

Neal’s Award of Valor comes after a 16-year career in the military. A graduate of Turlock High in 2003, Neal attended San Francisco State University and Boston University before joining the military in 2006. He served in the military from 2006 to 2014, before being transferred to the Coast Guard.

Neal said he decided to join the Coast Guard because he wanted to be able to spend more time with his family. During his years in the military, Neal was stationed in Hawaii, but was deployed overseas at two different times.

“I wanted a different life. I want to be with my daughters more and the Coast Guard provides that opportunity because the work we do is here in the homeland,” he said.

When asked if he had any advice for young people considering a life of military service, Neal said, “Find what you want to do, find what interests you, then go talk to someone who do this job.”

While military life isn’t for everyone, Neal says, it’s worth the work and the sacrifice.

“There is no greater reward than serving your country,” he said.