On a sunny, clear spring day at Onslow Beach aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune there was a frantic call for help. Lance Cpl. Justin McDaniel, a lifeguard with the Beach Detachment of Headquarters and Support Battalion, quickly went into action. A swimmer suffered extreme muscle cramps after being caught in the heavy surf and undercurrent of the waves. McDaniel pulled him from the water, saving his life and claiming the first rescue of the season.
“I saw a group, and they started screaming for help,” said McDaniel. “I jumped over the railing and ran over, but I couldn’t see (who was in danger). He was in between the waves. Finally, I found him and snatched him up.”
It all happened in the blink of an eye, said McDaniel. The man was awake and able to keep himself afloat but was no match against the undertow pulling him further and further away from his friends. McDaniel said the man looked very scared and was incredibly grateful to be freed from the undertow.
“He was exhausted,” said McDaniel. “When we got to the shore I tried to help him stand up but he couldn’t.”
McDaniel, originally an assault amphibious vehicle crew chief from Aiken, S.C., was initially shocked by the experience. While he looks the part with a deep tan and sunglasses, it was only recently he was in a course learning how to be a lifeguard.
“When it happened I thought, ‘Wow, this is actually happening. I’m doing what I was trained for,’” said McDaniel, with a soft southern accent. “Adrenaline really started kicking in.”
He was told by previous lifeguards that he may not get the opportunity to save anybody and most times beachgoers are safe throughout the summer. However, McDaniel has no qualms about rescuing somebody if necessary. He trained for weeks and received certifications through the Red Cross to save people in open water, just as he did that day.
“It’s just natural, I reckon,” said McDaniel. “I just like helping people.”
Being a lifeguard was not the first job where people’s lives could fall into his hands. Before he joined the Marine Corps, McDaniel was a volunteer firefighter and still hopes to make firefighting a career once his enlistment ends.
McDaniel’s experience can be summed up by his outstanding performance and use of vigilance.
“You never know when something is going to happen,” said McDaniel. “You have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Cpl. Nathan Frappier, a fellow lifeguard, was also there during the rescue. While McDaniel retrieved the swimmer, Frappier called for further assistance and managed the scene.
Frappier believes the swimmer’s cramps where due to dehydration.
“If you’re out here and not drinking water, your body is not going to respond well to the heat,” said Frappier. “While most Marines know it, many civilians don’t.”
Frappier wants beachgoers to remain aware while having fun.
“There is always a risk for danger,” said Frappier. “(Patrons) should always feel comfortable enough to talk to us if they see something they don’t think is safe. They can tell us, and we’ll do our part to take care of it.”
McDaniel said guests should also watch the current and understand their limitations. If a guest should doubt their ability to manage the water, he suggests they get out of the water until they can be confident in their ability to deal with the conditions.
“We’re ready to save Marines, their families and friends,” said Frappier. “We’re not here just to look good. We’re here to save lives and ensure the safety of the beach.”
For more information about Onslow Beach, visit mccslejeune.com/beach.