Marine is awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving a pregnant woman on high seas

While off duty in Okinawa, Marine major William Easter dove into a sea with 10-foot swells to rescue a pregnant woman who had been swept away by unexpected bad weather combined with a riptide.  Easter described his decision to rescue her as a "moral obligation" that he was unable to resist.  By doing so, he revealed one of the mysteries of the human condition, which is one person's decision to risk, or even sacrifice, his life for a stranger.

There is no Darwinian reason for a person to risk his life to save a stranger.  After all, each person's instinct for survival of the species is tied to that person's lineage.  That's why male lions when they take over a pride will kill the former lion's cubs — to ensure the best survival for their own — and why women develop herculean strength if it's needed to rescue their children.

Humans can bring to the tribe the same sense of obligation they feel to their own lineage.  We see this every time troops willingly sacrifice themselves to save each other.  There's no reason, though, ever to save a random stranger.  Nevertheless, that's exactly what people, especially men, do.

When the Titanic sank, the code of "women and children first" meant that a disproportionate number of men went down with the ship.  At day's end, roughly 75% of women and only 20% of men on the ship survived.  (Children had a lower survival rate of 50%, presumably because they were more vulnerable to the icy cold.)

In 1982, Calvin Eugene Simmons was enjoying a spectacular career.  Although only 32, he was a well known conductor throughout California and even debuted at the Metropolitan Opera.  His swift rise was made all the more impressive by the fact that, in each venue, he was the first African-American to conduct the orchestra.  Simmons died at 32 because, while boating on Lake Placid in New York, he tried to rescue a child following a canoe accident.  Simmons could not swim.

Fortunately, Major Easter could swim, although last December, that ability could scarcely prepare him for the rigors of diving into 10-foot swells, strong winds, and riptides in the East China Sea along the Sunabe Seawall to rescue a pregnant woman whose own husband had staggered out of the water, exhausted, to beg for help.

Easter later said, "I was confident in my skills and training," but reading about the rescue shows that Easter, when he leaped into the sea, also made a huge leap of faith:

Easter's first reaction to the desperate calls from the exhausted husband ― separated from his wife by a rip current after bad weather quickly approached ― was to help the husband search for help, he told Marine Corps Times in an email Thursday.

But the Marine quickly realized he was the only one capable and willing to rescue the pregnant woman from drowning, he said.


The Marine first attempted to get ashore, but when the woman was overcome by exhaustion and could no longer help him swim Easter focused on keeping her afloat until rescuers arrived, according to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal citation.

After staying afloat for almost an hour, the first rescue craft arrived. Because of the choppy sea and the size of the craft the boat capsized, sending Easter and the pregnant woman back in the water until a larger boat finally arrived and rescued them.

What's utterly fascinating is Easter's reason for doing what he did: "I didn't know what the victim's state was, but I felt like I had a moral obligation to do something."  That is an extraordinary statement.  At a pure genetic survival level, the last thing he should have done was sacrifice himself, but he had a "moral obligation to do so."

That moral obligation is so often allied with masculinity that is anything but toxic.  Moreover, age doesn't matter.  Noah Woods, a five-year-old boy, rescued his whole family from a burning house, dragging his two-year-old sister out and then getting help.  Peter Yang received a posthumous admission to West Point after he died saving his classmates following the Parkland shooting.  Kendrick Castillo, who dreamed of becoming a Marine, charged another school shooter, saving his classmates as well.  Some people go into the military for the adventure, some to gain skills, some to benefit from the G.I. Bill — and some just have that altruistic gene that drives them to save others, no matter the fact that it makes no Darwinian sense.

For his heroism, Major Easter received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, which is the highest honor awarded to those who engage in noncombat heroism.  He also received a letter of appreciation from the mayor of Chatan, Japan.  It is a wonderful thing that these were not posthumous honors.

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