by Airman 1st Class Zade C. Vadnais
18th Wing Public Affairs
3/20/2015 - KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- A Kadena Airman was awarded the Airman's Medal at a ceremony here March 20.
First Lt. Dayton Gilbreath, 18th Contracting Squadron contracting
administrator, was awarded the medal for rescuing an Airman who jumped
overboard from a sailing ship in the Adriatic Sea July 3, 2012. The
Airman's Medal is awarded to service members of any country or branch
who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Air Force, distinguish
themselves by heroic actions in a non-combat environment.
Following his graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Gilbreath, his
lacrosse teammates and several other USAFA athletes rented a 52-foot
boat and began sailing from port to port in the Mediterranean region. As
the only passenger with sailing experience, Gilbreath often helped the
skipper with two-man jobs such as raising and lowering the sails.
One morning as the boat sailed through the Adriatic Sea, a storm rolled
in, creating high winds the group hoped would get them to their
destination quicker than expected.
As Gilbreath helped the skipper raise the sails, he saw an Airman who
had been acting strangely for most of the trip take a running leap off
of the vessel.
"Myself and the skipper were the only ones who saw him run off the back
of the boat," Gilbreath said. "I looked at the skipper, and there was
just straight fear in his face. I told him I was going in after him, and
I dove in."
Gilbreath swam up to the Airman, who promptly dove underwater in an
attempt to drown himself. After retrieving his unconscious body,
Gilbreath returned to the surface only to discover that the boat hadn't
turned around for them.
Panicking, Gilbreath tried to calm himself down while keeping both his
head and the larger, unconscious Airman's head above water.
As the Airman in his arms regained consciousness, Gilbreath knew he
would need to think of a way to get both of them back to the boat. Since
dragging one of the largest Airmen on the trip through crashing waves
against his will would likely not work, Gilbreath had to get creative.
"He was in a couple of my classes, but I didn't know anything about him
besides that he's a football player, so I thought he must be
competitive," Gilbreath said. "I said 'I'll race you to the boat,' and
sure enough he took off swimming toward the boat."
The pair took off swimming toward the boat. After a few minutes, the
Airman stopped about 20 feet from Gilbreath and began rambling
incoherently. Determined to end his life, he dove underwater a second
time, prompting Gilbreath to dive after him and pull him to the surface
Luckily, the boat had lowered its sails and turned around by this point
and was close enough to toss a life saver to Gilbreath, which the Airmen
onboard used to pull him and the other Airman onto the safety of the
Once onboard, the Airman ran into the cabin and grabbed a knife,
intending to stab himself. The remaining 10 passengers on the boat
wrestled it from his hands and, at Gilbreath's suggestion, tied him up
to prevent him from hurting himself or anyone else.
When the boat reached shore about two hours later, Gilbreath chose to
accompany the Airman to a hospital in the Croatian city of Split instead
of continuing the trip with his friends.
"I thought I was going to die," Gilbreath said. "It was a very humbling,
surreal experience, and I'm very happy with the way things turned out.
Last I heard from him, he's doing well."
Brig. Gen. James B. Hecker, 18th Wing commander, presented the medal and
took the opportunity to recognize the significance of Gilbreath's
"There are not a lot of people who can say 'hey, I saved a life,'"
Hecker said. "To do it the heroic way he did it makes it that much more
While happy with the outcome of the situation, Gilbreath humbly
dismisses the notion that his actions were heroic, insisting he was just
doing what he thought to be the right thing.
"He was from the academy; we're all family," Gilbreath said. "There was no thought, it's just something you do."