Two Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) students were presented with the U.S. Army Commendation Medal for quickly coming to the aid of a fellow classmate following a life-threatening surfing incident in October 2022.
U.S. Army Maj. Joel Vinson and Maj. Harrison Leary, both of whom are Green Berets studying in NPS’ Department of Defense Analysis, would have been perfectly comfortable with having the incident remain a rousing surf story shared among friends. But the heroism of their actions, captured in the award citation, speak to the significance of their efforts.
The citation commended the “exceptionally meritorious actions” of Vinson and Leary “to provide medical aid and emergency response leadership in a life-threatening crisis, [and] their clear and decisive actions in a time sensitive situation greatly aided efforts to prevent the untimely death of an injured Soldier.”
The awards were presented in May by Army Brig. Gen. Guillaume Beaurpere, commanding general of the Special Operations Center of Excellence, during a visit to NPS to talk with students about the state of Special Operations Forces (SOF).
The event happened on Oct. 1, 2022, as four friends were hitting the waves at a popular Sand City beach in the chilly Monterey Bay. Army Maj. Mike Meier, a fellow NPS student, was the first in the water while Vinson, Leary and a fourth colleague monitored the waves from the beach.
At some point while in the water, Meier’s surfboard popped violently back at him in just the right orientation that the rear fin caught his leg, cutting it deeply. Not realizing the severity of the injury, Meier managed to get himself back to shore but was losing a lot of blood through his slashed wet suit. Fortunately, Meier’s friends were watching and quickly jumped into action.
“Joel and I were able to reach him within seconds,” Leary said. “We immediately applied the first tourniquet with Mike’s own surf leash. We dragged him further out of the water and reassessed the tourniquet, his vitals and condition. He was conscious and able to assist us in applying the tourniquet.
“My civilian neighbor, George McNeely, who was with us, assisted by applying direct pressure to the injury with both of his hands to stop the bleeding while I held the first tourniquet in place,” he continued.
Vinson had run back to the car to retrieve his cell phone to call 911. When he returned, he applied a second tourniquet using an additional surf leash. It wasn’t long before first responders arrived on the scene, and immediately worked on getting the bleeding to subside, and applied a third tourniquet.
“Joel and I assisted in carrying him to the nearby ambulance,” Leary added. “He was taken to Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula where medical professionals determined he needed immediate surgery, so he was then transported to a Salinas hospital.”
Meier was relieved and surprised his classmates were able to reach him so quickly and get control of his bleeding. Since he never lost consciousness during the ordeal, Meier recalls the event step by step.
“I knew the gravity of the injury as soon as I saw the wound,” Meier said. “We are laboriously trained to treat hemorrhaging wounds in combat, and I’ve seen wounds like this downrange. I was well aware that if we didn’t get it under control in a few minutes, I’d be flatlining, and that was a pretty haunting realization which I still think about often.
“Harry & J’s (Joel’s) quick and creative improvisation cut off the blood flow and mitigated the massive bleeding. After a few minutes, I felt my consciousness leveling out. Being the buddies that we are, it was our nature to weave humor into the situation. That kept my head in the game and got me through the worst of it.”
All four were surprised with how quickly events unfolded, and were pleased with their ability to help Meier. The friends see each other every day, hang out on the weekends, have classes together, spend family time together, attend church, golf, play softball and work out together routinely.
And, just as in the field, they have each other’s backs.
“Joel and I were thankful we were able to stay calm during this intense event,” said Leary. “Both of us are Green Berets, have received vast amounts of medical cross-training in our careers, and are gratified that our training kicked in to be able to control the situation.”
“It was emotionally difficult for me, being that he is such a great friend of ours, and his injury was certainly life threatening,” said Leary. “In the moment, it was just automatic. We did what we needed to do so he didn’t die.
“Mike (Meier) was in surgery for several hours … And amputation was a very real concern at one point when the surgeons could not get blood flow to return to his leg,” Leary continued. “Luckily, the radiology team was able to successfully remove clotting and restore blood flow and Mike not only lived, but was able to keep his leg and has made a full recovery since the accident.”