MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
It was a breezy Friday afternoon, Oct. 30, 2015, as the USS Boxer was underway, moving through choppy waters off the coast of Southern California. Marine Sgt. Zachary L. Piepenhagen stood on the smoke deck to take a brief break from work and enjoy a cigarette with his peers when he noticed someone climbing over the guard rail of the ship.
Piepenhagen, without hesitation, sprinted across the weather deck of the ship, jumping over the separation rope, and grabbed the sailor who was attempting to jump to his death. They grappled for a few seconds, the sailor resisting him in an attempt to escape, as both lives were in imminent danger of falling off the ship. Piepenhagen was able to pull the sailor off the ledge and back onto the ship, with the help of two other Marines, holding him against the ship’s bulkhead until help arrived.
“I don’t know what it was, I just happened to look over and I see this sailor on the other side of the railing,” Piepenhagen, who was at the time a topography specialist with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, explained. “It took me a second to really register what was going on, I don’t know how long that second actually lasted, but I jumped over the rope and ran over there and grabbed him.”
Piepenhagen, who recently ended active duty service, was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 26, 2017, for saving the life of a fellow service member. The Navy and Marine Corps Medal is the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the U.S. Department of the Navy for demonstration of heroic actions that clearly establish an act involving life-threatening risk to the recipient.
“It was wild after that, there were man overboard drills called so that everybody would get accountability and see what was going on,” Piepenhagen said. “I tried to go back to my shop to focus on work and tried to get out of the mentality of what just happened.”
After taking part in the rescue of the sailor, Piepenhagen took a step back and looked at suicide in the military community.
“When it comes to suicide, it’s the permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Piepenhagen said.
According to the award citation, Piepenhagen’s courageous and prompt actions in the face of great personal risk reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and United States Naval Service. “You never know what’s going to happen, you just act, you don’t think about it,” Piepenhagen said.
“It’s not about me worrying about myself or anything like that, it’s about somebody needing help,” he said, “I would hope that I’d jump back in there but I wouldn’t know until that day came.”
Marines are known for their bravery in the face of danger and their unwavering commitment to duty. Piepenhagen displayed his dedication to the Marine Corps’ core values: honor, courage and commitment.