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Army veteran helps save drowning boy, four years after rescuing two men on the same beach

Nickolas Clarke rescued two men who were drowning in 2014. On Labor Day weekend in 2018, he saved a boy at the same Florida beach.

ILKA COLE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By ALICIA ADAMS | Northwest Florida Daily News | Published: September 6, 2018

OKALOOSA ISLAND, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Nickolas Clarke never thought he would save people from drowning twice in his life, let alone in the same location. But while visiting the beach on Labor Day with his family, he and an airman who was also a bystander jumped in the rough water to save a young boy.

"You would never expect in a million years for that to happen again," Clarke said. "It happens quick; you either do something or you don't."

When he was an Army Ranger instructor in 2014, he saved two men caught in a riptide on the same beach on Oklaoosa Island. He was awarded the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest award for heroism outside of combat.

Although Clarke retired in 2015, his military training and instincts helped him save yet another person this week.

It was about 3 p.m. Monday and red flags were flying as strong rip currents formed ahead of Tropical Storm Gordon. Clarke was sitting on the beach with his two children when he heard a lady yell for help.

"She was screaming 'Somebody help my kid,' " Clarke said. "I looked over and that's when I saw him out pretty far. I saw just a head in the waves."

Without hesitation, Clarke and Sgt. Cody Patterson, an airman from Eglin Air Force Base, jumped in the water and grabbed the boy. They struggled to keep their heads above the waves and went under several times, but kept the boy's head above the water.

By the time the men were able to stand, lifeguards had arrived and helped them to shore. Firefighters examined the boy and released him back to his family.

Monday was a busy day for lifeguards on Okaloosa Island, according to Okaloosa County Beach Safety Division Chief Rich Huffnagle. Although there were only two rescues, the lifeguards spent the day explaining to people on the beach the hazards of the rip currents.

Moments before Clarke and Patterson's rescue, lifeguards pulled another person from the water nearby.

Clarke is still recovering from a broken neck, dislocated shoulder and injured back he received in an accident while in the Army. Monday's rescue left him with back pain, but he said it was all worth it.

"Even if I had one leg and a missing arm, I'd still go out there," Clarke said.

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©2018 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
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