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Master Sgt. Randolph Hodges receives the Airman’s Medal from 18th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas for Hodges’ role in saving three men from drowning in the Gulf of Mexico in 2003. Hodges is now stationed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Master Sgt. Randolph Hodges receives the Airman’s Medal from 18th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas for Hodges’ role in saving three men from drowning in the Gulf of Mexico in 2003. Hodges is now stationed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. (Erik Slavin / S&S)

The waves had swelled to almost four feet and the riptide churned the breaking nearshore waters with enough force to pummel anyone who dared challenge it.

“No one has any business being in the water today,” thought Air Force Master Sgt. Randolph Hodges, then stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

On May 10, 2003, the water resembled the Atlantic Ocean’s thrust of whitecaps and crashing waves much more than the usual Gulf of Mexico ripples found at Tyndall Beach near Panama City in the Florida Panhandle.

Hodges, who now lives at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, said he had no intention of taking on the unruly tides. He and his son R.J., then 10, had planned a laid-back day of fishing along the coast.

But before Hodges could so much as catch a baitfish, those plans changed.

What happened next would earn Hodges the Airman’s Medal for heroism, which he received at Kadena Air Base on March 31 from Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, 18th Wing commander. Dozens of airmen attended the ceremony to congratulate Hodges, including Gerald Murray, chief master sergeant of the Air Force.

A medal was the last thing Hodges was thinking of on that day at the beach, when a woman ran frantically toward him, pointing to three men struggling in the water.

“That’s when my dad jumped in the water to save the people,” R.J. Hodges said at the medal ceremony. “Some kids were crying and I was saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ ”

Randolph Hodges called out to the three men, in their 20s, about 50 yards offshore. The man closest to him was flailing.

“He looked the worst,” Hodges said. “I was within voice range of another one, his friend, who had his faculties. I called out to him and he said ‘Yeah, I can stay afloat. It’s my friend over there that needs help.’”

The third swimmer also seemed able to hold out a little longer on his own, so Hodges grabbed the man closest to him by the right arm, trying to keep him above water.

Meanwhile, R.J. went to work on the beach. He searched for rings, rafts, boogie boards — anything that could float.

After several minutes, Hodges’ kicking had slowed and his muscles ached. He swam parallel to the beach to avoid being swallowed by the riptide. But the riptide pushed Hodges and the three swimmers farther out into the ocean. The shoreline got smaller with each passing minute.

“I can’t drown like this. I can’t drown in front of my kid,” Hodges thought.

“I was really scared he would drown,” R.J. Hodges said. “I’m still kind of scared to go back out in water like that.”

Word of the danger had spread along the beach, reaching two other airmen: Staff Sgt. Christopher Kinter and Capt. Kenneth Ebi. R.J. gave them a large, red raft he had collected along the beach. Kinter and Ebi then rafted out to Hodges and the swimmer he had kept afloat. The three airmen then towed the remaining swimmers safely to shore.

“I was so exhausted on the beach, I couldn’t stand up,” Hodges said.

The 15 minutes Hodges spent in the water felt like hours, he said.

One of the swimmers was treated for dehydration, but none suffered any serious injuries.

Ebi, who is stationed at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and Kinter, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., both received Airman’s Medals for their roles in the rescue.

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