1st Lt. Aaron Cranford receives the Navy and Marine Corps Medal from Maj. Gen. Craig Q. Timberlake, the commanding general for 3rd Marine Division.

A supply officer was awarded the nation’s highest valor award for noncombat bravery after saving the lives of three divers and an onlooker caught in a rip current in Japan.

1st Lt. Aaron Cranford of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion was awarded the rare medal Monday at a ceremony on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan.

While finishing up a 35-minute recreational dive with some Marine Corps officers at Onna Point, Okinawa, on April 23, 2017, the Marines noticed several other divers appeared to be in distress as dive conditions started to worsen.

Cranford ensured his dive group made it back to safety then ventured back out “to the surf zone at risk to his own life to begin rescuing the divers,” according to his award citation.

The Marine officer approached the most distressed diver first, who then attempted to grab the lieutenant’s buoyancy control device.

“Following rescue diver procedures, 1st Lt. Cranford subdued the distressed diver and was able to manipulate his posture to a safe position to bring him to the shore,” according the citation. “Upon turning over the diver to personnel closer to shore, 1st Lt. Cranford returned two more times to bring in two additional divers.”

While Cranford was rescuing the divers, beach onlookers attempted to help despite verbal warnings to stay away. One of those people also got caught in the rip current.

Cranford “returned to the surf zone for the last time and placed the man on top of himself to keep him buoyant and away from the coral reef as he guided him to the shore, sustaining cuts and abrasions due to being raked across the coral reef,” the award citation reads.

The Navy and Marine Corps medal was established in 1942 and is rare. It is the highest decoration for valor in a noncombat situation. Recipients of the award have put their lives in great danger and risk to save others.

The award is considered higher than a Bronze Star and just below the Distinguished Flying Cross in order of precedence.

Back in January, a Navy midshipman earned the award after leading and rescuing a Boy Scout troop caught in a dangerous storm in Ontario, Canada. Midshipman 3rd Class Jonathan Dennler canoed over a mile in 60 mph winds to reach a ranger station for help.

“First Lt. Cranford is a superb representative of the United States Marine Corps,” Maj. Gen. Craig Q. Timberlake, the commanding general for 3rd Marine Division, said in a Marine Corps news article. “His actions took a lot of guts and a lot of courage. He reflects a United States Marine doing what a United States Marine does.”

Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.

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