Coast Guard Academy cadet makes daring off-duty rescue in Alaska

Coast Guard Academy NewsNew London, CT – Opportunities for heroism usually don’t announce themselves in advance. They may open as a loose gate in a gale, and shut just as suddenly. At times like these, quick action and instinct may mean the difference between life and death. There are those among us who unflinchingly rush into dangerous circumstances with no concern for themselves, simply to help someone in need. Second Class Cadet Michael Gilbert, a student at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., is one of these people.

Gilbert would be the last one to call himself a hero, as he talks quietly and modestly about the occasion he rescued a pregnant woman from a freezing river in Alaska.

Glaciers loom in the mountains of Alaska all year round, and the chilled, glacial runoff feeds the mountain streams and rivers. Gilbert was on leave late in May of 2012 and it was on the bank of such a river that he stopped to take some photos with his father, his little brother and a friend.

“We were just sitting there taking pictures,” recalled Gilbert, “and then we hear screaming. My original thought was that it was just someone playing.”

It didn’t take long for Gilbert to realize that the screams he heard were of true panic. A bend in the river and a bank of rocks prohibited them from seeing the source of the cries for help. Gilbert and his father darted over the rocks and saw a woman, neck-deep in the icy river, with her panicked friend crouched on the rocks trying desperately to pull her from the water.

While Gilbert had received professional rescuer training and first aid training at the academy, the moment he saw the woman pure instinct took over.

“We just went for it,” said Gilbert. “We thought – lady in the water, we’ve got to get her out.”

Without hesitation, Gilbert sprinted over to the rocks leading out into the river, with his father close behind.

”I got there and he got there right after me,” Gilbert recalled. “I jumped out on one of the rocks, and he took her from under one armpit and I grabbed from the other one, and we pulled her out.”

Gilbert did not yet know that the women he just pulled from the freezing water was pregnant. Once safely on the bank, Gilbert and his father, a health services technician and chief petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, confirmed that the woman was in stable condition and no longer in danger. She then told them she was three months pregnant. Once dried off, she thanked them and departed with her friend. The whole affair had ended as suddenly as it had begun.

Etched into a stone wall at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is the phrase “Who lives here, reveres honor. Honors duty.” Gilbert did not wade into the frigid water to fulfill a requirement of the Coast Guard, or to check off a box for duty’s sake. It was Gilbert’s solid character that led him into the river with no yield to risk or danger, to fulfill his duty to his fellow man.

Earlier that day, the woman did not know that her explorative intentions at the Little Susitna River would lead to her slipping into icy water, clinging for life. Nor did Gilbert know that as he enjoyed the Alaskan wild with his friend and family, that he would be suddenly thrust into a position of great responsibility.

When that call came, Gilbert answered without hesitation in spite of great danger. For this he was awarded the Coast Guard Achievement Medal in front of hundreds of his fellow cadets on Sept. 14, 2012.

Gilbert aspires to become a Coast Guard search and rescue pilot, flying in adverse conditions to save those in peril. His moral character, quick instincts and willingness to set himself aside for the sake of others will no doubt serve him well in his future as a pilot and future leader in the U.S. Coast Guard.

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