Four Marines received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal on Tuesday for rescuing a mother and her two daughters near Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, in June 2018.

The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Corps’ highest noncombat decoration, is “awarded to individuals who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Marine Corps, distinguish themselves by heroism” — often through lifesaving actions “performed at the risk of one’s own life.”

Staff Sgt. Leary K. Reichartwarfel, Cpl. Anders K. Larson, Cpl. Austin McMullen and Cpl. Timothy R. Watson noticed “a family of four in distress, caught in a rip current, about 100 yards out in the ocean," according to a Friday press release.

The Marines called out to the family to, “Float on your back!” and not fight the current, before successfully pulling the mother, Ali Joy, and her two 8-year-old daughters out of the water.

Unfortunately, the girls’ father, Charles “Austin” Joy Jr., was unresponsive when the Marines reached him. Atlantic Beach emergency services tried to resuscitate the man before transporting him to a local area hospital where he died, according to local news reports.

“My family would be dealing with a very different tragedy had the Marines not rescued me and my daughters. I know Austin, my husband, is with us — and thankful," Ali Joy told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview on Friday. “While none of us will be the same after the event, we are bound together in a meaningful and life-affirming way.”

Following the rescue, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, took to social media to help identify the four Marines, as the family wished to thank them.

Joy and her daughters presented three of the four Marines (one could not attend due to service) with the Heroic Act Award from the U.S. Lifesaving Association in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in August 2019. It was the first time the family had seen the Marines since the rescue.

Tuesday’s ceremony took place aboard Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, where Maj. Gen. Karsten S. Heckl, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing commanding general, presented the awards.

Established in 1942, the medal, which is considered higher than a Bronze Star, is equivalent to the U.S. Army’s Soldier’s Medal and the U.S. Air Force’s Airman’s Medal and has been awarded less than 3,000 times since its creation, Marine Corps Times previously reported. John F. Kennedy was the inaugural recipient of the award in 1944 for his command of Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II, prior to him becoming the 35th president of the United States.

“The gravity of this award, it’s something that means more than the individual receiving it,” medal recipient Cpl. Austin McMullen said in a Marine Corps video.

“It serves as a wakeup call, that life really means something," McMullen said in a Wednesday email to Marine Corps Times.

For Ali Joy, gratitude is her first reaction.

“Grateful ― for the Marines’ instinctive bravery, for the team of Marines who took my call looking for my rescuers with no real details, found them and worked tirelessly for 16 months to ensure their recognition,” she said. “Grateful for the armed forces as a whole who protect others in combat and noncombat situations.”

Following her husband’s passing, Ali Joy founded Float Don’t Fight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of rip currents. The group highlights the reminders to “bring a float, grab a float, be a float" for survival.

“I don’t think it’s any specific training, I think it’s just general lifestyle," Sgt. Anders Larson said in a Wednesday email to Marine Corps Times. "Always being ready for something new.”

Dylan Gresik is a reporting intern for Military Times through Northwestern University's Journalism Residency program.

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