‘Heroic, humble’ Coast Guardsman selected as 2022 USO Service Member of the Year

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jake Flores, maritime enforcement specialist at Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston and 2022 USO Service Member of the Year honoree, poses for a picture with his wife, Vanessa Flores, after a ceremony in Houston, Texas, Dec. 1, 2022. Flores’s command nominated him for the award for jumping into the Rio Grande to save a drowning baby during a patrol on June 2, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki)

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jake Flores, maritime enforcement specialist at Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston and 2022 USO Service Member of the Year honoree, poses for a picture with his wife, Vanessa Flores, after a ceremony in Houston, Texas, Dec. 1, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki)

by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki

Selfless. Courageous. Reliable.

These are words that coworkers and family members repeatedly used to describe Petty Officer 2nd Class David “Jake” Flores, the Coast Guardsman selected as the 2022 USO Service Member of the Year.

Flores’s shipmates offered up a portrait of a hard working, dedicated team player, the kind of man who lifts up everyone around him.

The kind of man who would dive into a river to save a baby’s life.

On June 2, Flores and two of his teammates from Coast Guard Maritime Safety & Security Team Houston were patrolling the Rio Grande, squinting through early morning shadows for any signs of moment along the banks. Then came the alert from U.S. Border Patrol agents: a large group of non-citizens was trying to cross the river up ahead.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jarrett Guerra, coxswain of the 29-foot Response Boat–Small, quickly maneuvered around a bend in the river while Flores and Petty Officer 3rd Class Corey Connolly sidled up to the bow, flashlights in hand.

The chaotic image of an overturned raft and people splashing frantically in the water rose to greet them, instantly catapulting all three Coast Guardsmen into rescue mode. Cognizant of the danger posed by the boat’s propellors, Guerra killed the engines and hastily scanned his surroundings. Two women thrashed in the water, struggling to stay afloat. Drifting out of their grasp was a small baby, floating facedown and sinking fast.

“Jake, Jake, the baby!” Guerra shouted.

“I’m going in!” Flores hollered back, almost simultaneously.

In a move later described as “heroic” by his peers, Flores detached his law enforcement gear, leaped off the boat and swam toward the submerged infant.

“He acted without any hesitation,” Guerra later recalled. “He was completely selfless.”

“My training took over,” explained Flores, father of a 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. “I pictured my own children and knew I couldn’t let anything happen to that baby.”

With the 1 year old firmly in his grasp, Flores propped the boy up on his neck and swam back to the boat, kicking against the current. He passed the lifeless infant up to Connolly, who immediately began CPR. Guerra hoisted the two distraught women up into the boat and helped his close friend and shipmate, Flores, clamber back on deck.

After about three rounds of CPR, the baby stirred, then drew breath. He was soaked to the bone and coughing up water, but very much alive. Flores scooped the infant up and held him closely, trying to soothe and warm him during the short trip to the U.S. riverbank. Emergency medical services technicians met them there and whisked the survivors to nearby Mission Regional Medical Center for medical care. Much to their relief, Flores and his teammates later received word that the women and baby were all doing well.

When they learned of Flores’s involvement in the dramatic search and rescue case, many of his peers and supervisors said they were amazed, but not surprised.

“Acting that way is just a part of his character,” said Chief Petty Officer Charles Havlik, Flores’s direct supervisor at MSST Houston.

“Ten out of ten times, I know he would do the same thing again,” Guerra asserted.

When her husband came home and told her about rescuing the drowning baby on the Rio Grande, Vanessa Flores was simultaneously filled with pride and concern for his well-being.

“He came home a little bit different,” she said. “I think experiencing something like that made him appreciate the little things more. You realize how precious life is after a scary moment like that.”

As he stepped up to the microphone and addressed his MSST Houston shipmates during the USO Service Member of the Year ceremony on Dec. 1, Flores’s eyes shone with emotion.

“I know this is an individual award, but I feel it’s a team effort,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful for this honor.”

Flores ascribing his success to his teammates aligns with supervisor Lt. Joshua Moore’s glowing assessment of the 35-year-old maritime enforcement specialist.

“He’s such a humble person that he will never really admit how great he is,” said Moore. “Truth be told, he’s an inspirational person and a strong leader.”

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Flores joined the Coast Guard in 2012 with the goal of saving lives.

His lifesaving actions on the Rio Grande and his unfaltering commitment to helping others prompted Flores’s supervisors to nominate him for USO Service Member of the Year, an award that recognizes service members who perform extraordinary acts of bravery and embody the values of the Armed Forces and the USO.

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