OKINAWA, JAPAN --
U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Steven LaDine seemed to see the colorful Marshall Island-style outrigger canoe everywhere – effortlessly breezing across the water, or sitting in the sand near the beach in his neighborhood in the sleepy village of Yomitan.
“It’s very easy to recognize, I had even once walked by it and seen the guy who owns it and told him it was a nice boat,” LaDine said.
On the afternoon of May 15, 2021, LaDine was laying on the warm sand of Nagahama Beach, when he looked out on the ocean and noticed that the colorful outrigger canoe he was so used to seeing was capsized in the water, approximately 400 meters from shore. He had just finished a day of snorkeling and was ready to head home, but something about the situation did not look right.
“I noticed that the sail boat was tipped over in the water pretty far out. At first I didn’t think much of it…but I didn’t see anyone on top of the boat, so I threw my stuff back on and swam out there,” said LaDine.
Photo by Lance Cpl. Federico Marquez
Brig. Gen. Brian Wolford, the 3rd Marine Logistics Group commanding general, awards the Navy and Marine Corps Medal to 1st Lt. Steven Ladine, a logistics officer with 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd MLG, on Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, June 7, 2022. LaDine was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism for rescuing a civilian from drowning off the coast of Nagahama Beach in May 2021.
Meanwhile, at sea, Lt. Col. Caleb Eames (at the time a major) and his friend, Tom Burkard, both of whom had been spending the afternoon sailing to celebrate Burkard’s 63rd birthday mere moments earlier, were fighting for their lives amidst a strong current and twenty mile per hour winds. When the boat tipped over, Burkard became trapped underwater, unable to get to the surface for air, with his leg tangled in the rigging and pinned against the mast under the boat. Eames was frantically working to get Burkard’s face above water while also trying to see underwater to move the mast and disentangle his leg, to no avail. With no way to signal to anyone on shore, and with the boat continually taking on water and dragging Burkard down more and more, the situation was grim.
“I was praying out loud, ‘Lord, help us, Lord help me save Tom’s life’. And right at that point, when I was completely out of options, I heard a voice behind me: ‘Hey do you need any help?,” said Eames.
It was LaDine, with his snorkel gear, ready to assist.
For Burkard in particular, LaDine’s appearance was nothing short of miraculous.
“Ten to fifteen feet away I see this guy’s head pop out of the water with snorkel gear and I just thought ‘Thank you Jesus!’ I was really glad to see Steve.” Tom Burkard
With LaDine on the scene using the snorkel mask, the two Marine officers began working together to free Burkard, with Eames applying leverage on the boat to pull it in one direction, while LaDine repeatedly dove under the water to slowly but surely wriggle Burkard’s leg free of entanglements. This exhausting process went on for about ten to twenty dives over the course of up to half an hour according to Eames.
Finally, Burkard’s leg was freed, and he and Eames clambered back into the boat and sailed back to shore with LaDine swimming behind them to ensure they made it safely.
Back on the beach, LaDine ensured Burkard did not need further medical attention, spoke with the gentlemen briefly, and returned home.
To his pleasant surprise upon returning to work that following Monday, LaDine found he had received an email from a one Lt. Col. Caleb Eames, thanking him for his help.
To his further surprise, LaDine was then awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism a year later during a ceremony June 7 at Camp Hansen.
“Without both Caleb and Steven, I would have been dead. It was a combined effort, they gave it their all,” said Burkard.
For LaDine, the award is a much-appreciated honor, but it’s only part of the reward for a job well done.
Now, LaDine rides in the colorful outrigger canoe he used to admire with his newfound friend, with whom he’ll be connected for life: Tom Burkard.