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News > Staff Sgt. honored for lifesaving action performed two years ago
Airman's Medal
Staff Sgt. Chris Harlan was awarded the Airman’s Medal, which is awarded for heroism involving the voluntary risk of life outside of combat. Sergeant Harlan and his friends saved the lives of four exchange students drowning at Turner Falls. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)
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Staff Sgt. honored for lifesaving action

Posted 9/9/2009   Updated 9/9/2009 Email story   Print story


by Howdy Stout
72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

9/9/2009 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "He's the reason I joined the Air Force," explains Airman 1st Class Kelly George. "I wanted to do something that mattered. To serve my country."

Her cousin, Staff Sgt. Chris Harlan, did both. In 2007, he and two friends helped rescue a group of drowning college exchange students during a weekend fishing trip, an action that culminated in his receiving the Airman's Medal. Ranked higher than the Bronze Star, the Airman's Medal is for heroism involving the voluntary risk of life outside of combat.

Sergeant Harlan remembers the day well.

"On the way home we stopped off at Turner Falls," Sergeant Harlan recalls. Then an airman, he and two friends were returning from their Columbus Day weekend fishing trip when he decided to stop at the fall to show his friends some of Oklahoma's scenic beauty.

He noticed five students, all exchange students from India attending Oklahoma City University, wading into the water.  But when one slipped into deeper water, the others were dragged in. None could swim.

"We got over there as quickly as possible," Sergeant Harlan says. "The first thought is, of course, nobody is drowning. But that lasted a millisecond."

Disregarding their own safety -- and the frigid water -- Sergeant Harlan and his friends dove in to the rescue. Within minutes they managed to pull four of the five students from the water. Sergeant Harlan organized bystanders to help search and to call for help.

Ignoring the cold and becoming increasingly tired, Sergeant Harlan continued searching for the fifth student for another 30 minutes until the police arrived. "We never found the guy," he said. It took rescue divers another 30 minutes to find the missing student. The survivors were hustled off for medical examinations while Sergeant Harlan and his friends recovered.

"I was exhausted," he said. "I felt like I had sprinted several miles."

Sergeant Harlan met the students again during a Hindu Diwali ceremony, where they thanked him for his heroism. 

"It was very touching," said his wife, Staff Sgt. Rachel Harlan. "He didn't even know their names until then. It wasn't until then that we met them."

Sergeant Harlan says the day at Turner Falls illustrates how tenuous life can be. It has made him cherish his own family more.

"Within five minutes of showing up there, somebody lost their life. Things can change fast," he said. "It just makes you appreciate what you have. A lot of people experience loss and tragedy ... but people forget how quickly you can lose a loved one."

What the rescue hasn't done is change Sergeant Harlan's humility.

"He's pretty humble," said Colonel Warren.

But receiving the Airman's Medal is a rare achievement, Colonel Warren added.  He said most are given to Para Rescue Jumpers (PJs) for rescuing downed aircrew. Most Airmen, he said, will go an entire career without ever meeting an Airman's Medal recipient.

"It's not given out every day," he said. "It's very uncommon, in Oklahoma. In peacetime."

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