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Arizona Air Guardsman Honored for selfless act of heroism

Staff Sgt. Jay Rosenberry visits the gravesite of his friend Kevin Mark Emerson in Jetersville, Va., April 11. Sergeant Rosenberry was awarded the Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving medal, and Emerson was posthumously awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for the heroic rescue of three young children caught in a riptide while vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July 2006. Emerson died as a result of his heroic actions. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Evanson)

Staff Sgt. Jay Rosenberry visits the gravesite of his friend Kevin Mark Emerson in Jetersville, Va., April 11. Sergeant Rosenberry was awarded the Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving medal, and Emerson was posthumously awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for the heroic rescue of three young children caught in a riptide while vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July 2006. Emerson died as a result of his heroic actions. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Evanson)

Staff Sgt. Jay Rosenberry prepares his F-16 for a sortie at Tucson International Airport. Sergeant Rosenberry was awarded the Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving medal for the heroic rescue of three young children caught in a riptide while vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July 2006. The medal is awarded to any person who rescues or endeavors to rescue any other person from drowning, shipwreck or other perils of the water. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Desiree Twombly)

Staff Sgt. Jay Rosenberry prepares his F-16 for a sortie at Tucson International Airport. Sergeant Rosenberry was awarded the Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving medal for the heroic rescue of three young children caught in a riptide while vacationing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July 2006. The medal is awarded to any person who rescues or endeavors to rescue any other person from drowning, shipwreck or other perils of the water. (Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Desiree Twombly)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- On any given morning at Tucson International Airport the skies are clear, there's a view of the mountains, rows of F-16s wait for the morning "go," and a life-saving hero prepares his jet for flight. 

In April, the Coast Guard honored Staff Sgt. Jay Rosenberry, an F-16 crew chief here, for saving the lives of his children and another child in 2006. He was presented with a Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving Medal. 

Rosenberry, a member of the 162nd Fighter Wing for 18 years, is no stranger to duty and service before self. 

He was on vacation July 24, 2006, with his 13-year-old daughter, Josie, and his 11-year-old son, J.J. They were vacationing with his former girlfriend, Kristy, and her family at Harkers Island, off the coast of North Carolina. 

Among the group were Kristy's daughter, Mikayla, her son, Josh, Kristy's dad, Johnnie, her step-brother, Mark Emerson, and his wife Angel. That day ended with an event that left him with bittersweet emotions, said Rosenberry. 

While unpacking and settling into a cabin, Rosenberry's children and the rest of the group headed to the beach. The sky was overcast and it appeared a storm was on the way, said Rosenberry. 

Down at the beach, the children and Mark were playing in the waves in knee- to waist-deep waters. 

"My son was knee deep in the water and was pulled under by a riptide," he said.
Mark saw that J.J. was in trouble and headed in his direction to try to help him back in. As he attempted to help J.J., he and his nephew Josh were also pulled farther into the waters by the rip tide. 

Josie saw her brother was in trouble and risked her own life to go into the waters to attempt to save him. She was also overcome by the tide and dragged out into the waters. 

"That's my little hero," said Rosenberry. 

At the time Josie was being pulled into the water, Johnnie, who was sitting on the beach, immediately realized that the children and Mark were in danger. He went into the water. The waves and surf were so strong that Johnnie could not break through, said Rosenberry. 

Mikayla, Kristy's daughter ran to find Rosenberry to help. 

"I am grateful that she sprinted those 250 yards to the cabin. She'll always be a hero in my eyes. If it weren't for her, I don't know if Josie, J.J. or Josh would be here today," said Rosenberry. 

As soon as the words, "the boys are in trouble," came out of Mikayla's mouth, Rosenberry without hesitation, sprinted to the beach. 

"As I got closer, I could see four heads bobbing in the water," he said. 

Josie was closest to the shore and J.J. was not far behind. To their right were Mark and Josh. They were scattered 30 to 100 yards from the shore. 

"When I got to the water, I swam through the incoming waves. As I got closer to Josie I could hear her crying frantically to get J.J. I grabbed Josie by the arm and swam her to knee deep water where she could stand up and get safely to shore. I immediately rushed back out into the surf after J.J.," he said. 

As he made it back to shore with his son, exhaustion began to set in. Rosenberry stopped briefly and gave his children a hug and told them he loved them not knowing if he would make it back. He headed into the waters for Josh and Mark. 

"As I was heading back out, I passed Kristy who was exhausted from trying to get through the waves to help her son. I can remember her saying, 'Please save my boy!'" he said. 

Fighting against the waves, Rosenberry was able to see over the water and noticed that Mark and Josh had been separated. To his despair, he saw Mark floating in the water. He swam to reach Josh. With great difficulty and nearly overcome by exhaustion, he fought the waves with Josh and made it safely to shore. 

"It got to a point that I thought I might actually die out there, but was comforted greatly knowing that my children were alive on shore and would see another sunrise," he said. 

At about the same time Rosenberry made it to shore, two good Samaritans went out on boogie boards and managed to bring Mark back to shore. He did not survive. He gave his life that morning in his attempt to save the children. 

A Coast Guard helicopter arrived and transported Mark to Carteret General hospital. Rosenberry, his family and friends, were put on a boat and taken to the mainland where they were treated and released from the same hospital. While at the hospital, a Coast Guard captain informed Rosenberry that the last time they got a similar call, all four people had drowned. 

"I sit and I think about that and I feel fortunate to have been able to make it to all three children and bring them back in safely. Thank you God for giving me the strength to do what needed to be done," said Rosenberry.