A soldier stationed at Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson is set to receive one of the nation’s highest military awards on Friday. The Soldier’s Medal is given for heroic actions taken by military personnel in civilian life, far away from combat zones. According to Army officials, it’s the first time a soldier in Alaska has been awarded the honor for a rescue that happened in state. And it started with a fishing trip.
Staff Sergeant Joshua Schneiderman has been in the military more than 20 years.
“I have 63 months in combat,” Schneiderman said, adding, “That I can talk about.”
The Soldier’s Medal is a huge deal–and extremely rare. Since 2001 up through April of 2015, the military has awarded 732 Silver Stars. In the same period, just 172 Soldier’s Medals were awarded. It recognizes a voluntary risk of life in a non-combat setting.
For Schneiderman, that happened in June of 2014 as he was showing his wife how to dip-net on the Copper River.
“I heard some screaming up-river, and couldn’t really tell what was going on,” Schneiderman explained during a recent interview at JBER. “I looked over and this gentleman was almost in the middle of the river. He was about up to his chin in the water.”
The man was waving one hand frantically, holding his dip-net in the other.
“I was like ‘just let go of the net,'” Schneiderman recalled, “But the guy had this monster king salmon in his net, and that’s why he didn’t want to let go.”
Schneiderman’s read was that the situation looked dire.
“Nobody was really making any effort to do anything with this guy,” Schneiderman said. “He was getting ready to die down the river.”
He ran to his truck, grabbed a life-vest, and sprinted back to the bank.
“I threw him the life-vest, and I took about two more steps and jumped in the water, which was about 10 feet away,” he explained.
Scheidermann’s chest-waders quickly filled with water as the current carried him out. He grabbed a rock with one hand, and stretched out the other.
“I just made every effort I could to even make finger-tip contact with this guy,” Schneiderman recounted, “and somehow we were able to get finger-tips and walked our fingers into our hands and I just grabbed this guy.”
Schneiderman pulled the man to safety. The king salmon, however, was lost to the river.
After things settled down, Schneiderman walked back to his truck, not making too much of the rescue.
“It kind of hit me when he came up to my truck and he hugged me for like 20 minutes,” Schneiderman said. “It was like, ‘Wow, ok, I really did just save this guy’s life.'”
Scheidermann, still, actually doesn’t seem very worked up about it. He doesn’t remember the man’s name, or even where he was from.
The more I pressed Schneiderman about why he, not anyone else on the river, dove in to help, the more he shrugged and insisted that’s just what you do, and that it’s how he’s been trained.
“Like I said, I got 63 months in combat. When you return from a war-zone, you’re changed. Your environment that you know back here is no longer the same,” Schneiderman explained. “I don’t want to say you’re walking on egg shells, but you have a more heightened sense of awareness.”
“There’s nothing different about what he did in pulling that man out of the water than what he might do in a combat zone in reacting to enemy contact,” said Army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown. He sees the Soldier’s Medal is important because it commends military values applied even when a soldier might not technically be on the clock.
“That’s what selfless service really, truly is,” Brown said. “For us to say we’re going to only adhere to that value when we’re wearing the uniform, or when we’re on duty, or in a combat zone–that’s not consistent with what the Army is all about.”
News about the award came to Schneiderman last month. He he hasn’t talked much about it, but the timing couldn’t be better.
“This is a great way to go out,” he said. “I submitted me retirement paperwork Monday, this is gonna be a great ending to a 23 year career.”
Still, Scheiderman does have one regret about that day.
“We didn’t catch any fish,” he said, shaking his head.
The award ceremony is Friday at JBER.