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NEWS | Aug. 8, 2012

'Hero' Airman saves little girl from drowning

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

An Airman doesn't have to be on the battlefield to risk his life for others, to react within a moment's notice to a crisis and to be a hero.

It started out as a beautiful weekend summer day at Sullivan's Island, S.C.

Desperate pleas for help were echoing faintly over the rolling ocean waves. The pleas were from a 7-year-old girl, pulled out past the breakers by a violent riptide and with every scream, her weakened body gave in a little more to face of the powerful ocean current.

Nearby, Staff Sgt. Robert Proffitt, 373rd Training Squadron, C-17 APG instructor from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., was enjoying a day at the beach with his wife and children. Proffitt was wading further out in the water than anyone else and he luckily heard the subtle cries for help.

"I could see her more than 100 yards from the beach," said Proffitt. "I didn't have time to think about it. I just reacted."

Proffitt used all of his energy swimming to the girl. By the time he reached her, all he could see was her hair swaying effortlessly with the tide. Her body had slipped beneath the water. He pulled her head above water and she took a deep breath, but she had no energy to move.

"Had I arrived shortly after the moment I did, I would have never seen her," said Proffitt.

After grabbing the girl, he looked back toward the beach; he had never been this far from shore. He couldn't feel the ocean bottom and the girl was clutching to his back as he slowly began paddling toward the beach.

"Every movement was a struggle," said Proffitt. "I had already used so much energy, just keeping my head above water seemed to be a challenge. However, I kept thinking to myself, 'do not let her die' and so I kept fighting."

Proffitt continued fighting until he reached the shore. Once he felt the sand under his feet, he knew he was close enough to yell for help. A group of people quickly gathered and aided in the efforts to bring both Proffitt, and the girl, safely back onto the beach. The moment Proffitt was on dry land, he fell to his knees and stared up into the sky.

"It was a miracle," said Proffitt.

Due to his efforts, the little girl was safely returned to her parents.

Proffitt credits his ability of reaching the little girl in time to his current cardio-exercise routine; swimming. However, this wasn't the first time Proffitt was challenged with the task of saving someone's life.

Months prior to the beach incident, Proffitt happened to be at the 'right place, right time' again. It was during the lunch hour at work.

Staff Sgt. Michael Semmerling, 373rd Training Squadron electrical environmental systems instructor, was eating a turkey sandwich when the unthinkable happened.

"I was eating turkey because it's supposed to be healthy," said Semmerling. "But, after I took a bite, I began choking. I couldn't breathe and, I thought, the rest of the squadron was out of the office."

Semmerling attempted to cough the turkey up by pounding his chest with his fist, but nothing seemed to work. He ran down the hall, his face turning from red to blue, when he stumbled into Proffitt's office.

"When he came in to my office, I had no idea what was wrong," said Proffitt. "But when I looked at his face, it was shades of blue, red and purple. I knew I had to react."

Without hesitation, Proffitt jumped from his desk and spun Semmerling, a 220 pound man, 180 degrees with ease and began doing the Heimlich maneuver. Proffitt continued monitoring the condition of his friend, and after a few thrusts, the turkey that was stuck in Semmerling's throat shot across the room.

"If it wasn't for Sgt. Proffitt, I wouldn't be here today," said Semmerling. "He is a hero."

Proffitt humbly insists that he isn't one.

"I'm no hero," said Proffitt. "I've just been put into situations that required me to react. The Air Force has taught me life saving skills, and the importance of reacting quickly."