A six-year-old girl and her grandmother were enjoying themselves by the water of Lewis and Clark Lake, near Yankton, South Dakota on the warm afternoon of July 7, 2011. Unfortunately for the girl and her grandmother, at some point the girl lost a flip-flop to the water and tried to retrieve it.
Not too far from the girl and her grandmother, Gary McDonald and Kevin McDonald, two brothers who are Yankton natives, were working with Doug Stockholm, a contractor hired to help the brothers re-shingle the McDonald family cabin. The eldest brother, Gary McDonald, said something that week kept pulling his attention toward the water. Gary McDonald remembers standing on the ground, preparing shingles to be brought up to the roof, but his attention drifted out to the water once again, and that's when he saw something wrong. He said he saw a woman and a little girl floating through the strong current of the flooded Lewis and Clark Lake.
Gary McDonald, a 60-year old Yankton, S.D., native (left), Doug Stockholm, a 61-year old Springfield, S.D., native (center), and Kevin McDonald, a 52-year old Yankton, S.D., native (right), pose for a group photograph after they received the Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving Medal at the McDonald family home in Yankton, S.D., Dec. 16, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Johnson)
“I knew it was bad news,” said Gary McDonald. “So much water was moving through there, it was moving chunks of island that you could have parked a pickup truck on. The girl was hanging on to her grandmother's neck and her grandmother was floating on her back. I got an artificial knee and I was trying to run down the road so I just yelled to [Kevin McDonald].”
Stockholm said he saw Gary heading to the water out of the corner of his eye and once he heard him shout for his brother, told Kevin he'd better get down to the ground because something wasn't right. While Gary made a beeline toward the water and jumped in, boots and all, Stockholm and Kevin made their way to the water. Stockholm said as Kevin McDonald jumped in, he called 911 to notify authorities of the emergency, telling first responders they needed a boat to assist them.
The three Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving Medals presented to Doug Stockholm, Kevin McDonald and Gary McDonald, three men who put themselves in danger to save the lives of a 6-year-old girl and her grandmother, Dec. 16, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Johnson)
“You put your ankle in the water and you take another step and you're above your head,” said Kevin McDonald, a retired Coast Guard Master Chief.
The three men said due to the Missouri River's exceptionally high water, there was barely any shore and it dropped off immediately into a swift current that took them downstream.
“I swam down-river to them,” said Kevin McDonald. “Due to the region, if you go any further down you'll end going around a curve that will take you to Yankton, and there's nothing but a solid drop – no bank, so Gary thought the only way to save them was to swim upriver.”
As the brothers reached the grandmother and her granddaughter, they grabbed the young girl and began swimming upriver, battling the current, passing her back and forth as they became tired to preserve energy and keep them from becoming victims themselves.
As the McDonald's were helping the girl, Stockholm, a man who can't swim, grabbed a child's inflatable raft and thinking on his feet, drove down-stream to a point where he believed he could reach the distressed woman and child, as well as the two brothers.
“First time I stepped in I said ‘Wow,' because I never touched bottom,” said Stockholm. “There were some people up above watching and they said ‘Can you swim?' and I said ‘No, but there's nobody here doing anything different.' So what do you do? I had that small raft that was half out of air and I pushed it ahead of me. I got to [the grandmother] and she said to me ‘don't let go.'”
As the three men struggled against the current, Ian Jackson, nephew to the McDonald brothers, also jumped into the water and was able to take the young girl in his arms to augment the rescue effort. Both brothers claim that if it weren't for Jackson's efforts, they can't be sure they would have been able to make it back to shore. While the McDonald family brought the girl to shore, they said Stockholm, hanging onto the flotation device, brought the grandmother to shore. Kevin McDonald said they were beyond exhausted, and once they finally reached shore, just lay on the grass and were unable to move for a long time.
Doug Stockholm, a 61-year old Springfield, S.D., native, has the Coast Guard's Silver Lifesaving Medal pinned to his shirt by Coast Guard Capt. Martin Malloy, commander, Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi, at an award ceremony in Yankton, S.D., Dec. 16, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Johnson)
The men knew they had saved two lives that day, what they were unaware of is that due to their actions, they would join the ranks of a very small group of recipients for a very prestigious award.
In recognition for their actions on July 7, 2011, the three men gathered at the McDonald family home in Yankton, South Dakota, on December 16, 2015, where the Coast Guard presented all three with the silver lifesaving medal.
Presenting the medals to the men was Capt. Martin Malloy, commander, Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi, Master Chief Petty Officer Ryan Fahlenkamp, Coast Guard District 8 command master chief and Senior Chief Petty Officer William Klein, Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi command senior chief.
Family members came together in the living room when the time came to present the award, some standing, some sitting, as each man's name was called to receive their award and join Malloy while a summary of their actions was read to the family by Klein. Toward the end of each reading, Fahlenkamp and Malloy pinned the silver medals, which have the initials of the recipients engraved on the back, to their shirts.
“It was one of the highlights of my career to be involved in a recognition ceremony of heroes and to have been with guys who are in the same company as Nimitz, Patton and Byrd, who have also been awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal,” said Malloy. “It was a very humbling event. Spending time with the family and the pride that they showed, it was readily evident that they showed true American values and true American heroism.”
When asked if they felt like heroes, the three men unanimously said they did not. They paused, thinking about the question.
“You have to try to do something,” said Stockholm.
“We couldn't have done it without each other,” said Gary McDonald.
His brother, Kevin McDonald nodded in agreement.
“It was a group effort,” he said.
By U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Johnson
Provided through Coast Guard
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