Just after noon on June 15, 2019, two Marines security guards and a special agent with the Diplomatic Security Service assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, saved a local Liberian man from drowning in the Atlantic Ocean’s tall waves and strong current.
Marine Sgt. Parker Crosson and Cpl. Aaron Pham had been tasked with helping provide security for the local embassy, reporting to the local regional security office where Special Agent Sean Sullivan, a Marine veteran, was assigned.
Five months later, in November, Crosson was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy’s highest award for noncombat valor, while Pham received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, for the daring water rescue. For his part, Sullivan received the State Department’s Award for Heroism.
Sullivan spent his off time at the local beach along with Marines from the local detachment and that Saturday seemed no different than any other, Sullivan told Marine Corps Times in a late June phone call.
But this day was different.
The waves were too high
While Crosson and Sullivan were on the beach, a U.S. tourist told Crosson she saw a man struggling in the water, Sullivan said.
A local Liberian man had been boogie boarding in the ocean when the strong waves tore away his board, leaving him struggling to stay afloat roughly 200 yards from shore. A strong rip current prevented from returning to land, Sullivan said.
“At great personal risk, he immediately made his way into the ocean,” Crosson’s citation for the Marine Corps Medal said. “He swam through six-foot waves and under-currents, to make his way to the victim.”
After seeing Crosson run into the water, Sullivan quickly followed him. Using the strong current the special agent quickly swam to the drowning man, helping Crosson keep him afloat while they moved toward a sandbar to regroup, Sullivan said in the phone call.
The sandbar was only big enough for two of the men to stand on at a time, so Sullivan and Crosson came up with a plan.
Sullivan would try to swim the drowning man back on his own. Crosson would remain on the sandbar as a reference point for Sullivan and the man to return to if the current was too strong to fight.
That’s where Cpl. Aaron Pham came in. The Marine had been surfing that day, but after being beaten up by the surf he decided to come back to shore, he recalled to Marine Corps Times.
The waves were too high for him to see Crosson and Sullivan rush into the ocean but he did see the drowning man ask for help.
“I was on the back of my surfboard when I flew in,” Pham said. “I did not really see what happened, I was just trying to save that man.”
When Pham arrived at the sandbar Sullivan already had returned, exhausted from his first attempt to swim the man safely to shore.
The three rescuers then loaded the man onto the surfboard and started to work together to bring him back alive, Pham said.
Pham positioned himself in the back of the surfboard providing most of the kicking power as the men made their way to shore, Sullivan said.
“My adrenaline was running, but I was pretty wiped,” Pham said. “But together when we kicked, we kicked together and we used some of the waves to get back in.”
After several minutes of fighting the current the Marines and Diplomatic Security agent finally brought the Liberian man to the shore where he fell on the sand, exhausted, embarrassed but alive, Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he mentioned the incident to his boss, Special Agent David Brown, but did not think much would come of the incident.
However, the heroic rescue was reported by a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who witnessed the events, Sullivan said.
“It was a surprise to me,” Pham said. “I didn’t even know that was pushed up.”
Pham added that it was bit awkward to receive an award, “it was really nice to be able to be recognized for honestly something that we all as Marines should be doing anyways, taking care of each other.
Though Crosson could not be reached for an interview, both Sullivan and Pham gave him the most credit for the rescue.
“Sgt. Crosson was the first one in the water, I followed him in,” Sullivan said.
Crosson “is the type of guy who would save me from anything without hesitation,” Pham said. “He’s just a great guy all around.”