SA earns medal for Act of Courage

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

Four people owe their lives to a special agent who was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff.


Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent (SA) Dustin Kepley, 1st Field Investigations Region, Detachment 104, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., was kayaking while on leave June 9, 2018, in his home state, North Carolina, when he heard a raucous commotion and alarming screams coming from the raging New River. It rained the night before so the river was rougher than normal.


SA Kepley noticed two female adults, in float tubes, and two female children in the middle of the river drifting by the off ramp.


“At first I thought everything was OK until I heard one of the adults yell, ‘You need to get them,’ and the other one said ‘I can’t swim,’” SA Kepley recalled. “I saw one of them attempting to hold out a paddle for the children to grab, but they were too far away to reach it.”


At that point, the smaller child’s head went under water and Kepley started to swim to her. He remembers being concerned for the children because they appeared to be having a difficult time staying above water without life preservers and were floating down river away from anyone that could help.


“While I was swimming over to them the smaller child’s head bobbed under the water a few times so I grabbed her first and put her on my back,” Kepley said. “Then I grabbed the other child around the waist and swam to shore. When I reached them, I was unable to reach the bottom and had to tread water while grabbing the children.”


The swim back was difficult for Kepley because he was being pushed down river by the current. A female on the shoreline grabbed the two girls to help him as he lifted them out of the river.


“Then I swam upstream against the current to grab the floats the two adults were on,” Kepley said. “They were stuck in the middle of the river on debris so I freed them and pulled them to the off ramp.”


After their trip down the river that day, SA Kepley reached the off ramp before the rest of his group and began pulling them up to the access ramp so they could exit the river. Kepley’s wife Kayla, her mother Brandy Smith, her aunt Brenda Kidd and other employees of the campground witnessed SA Kepley’s rescue actions from shore. 


“I pulled the rest of my group in and got out of the water to check on the children but they had already left the campground,” SA Kepley said. “I was unable to get their names and no one else from our group spoke with them before they left.”


However, SA Kepley’s efforts spoke volumes to the Air Force, which awarded him the Air Force Commendation Medal, Second Oak Leaf Cluster, for his Act of Courage.


The citation reads in part: “Without regard for his own safety, (Special Agent) Kepley plunged into the swelled river and swam to the drowning children. He quickly reached them and swam against the river’s undertow towards the banks of the river as they clung to his back. Upon safely delivering them to dry land, (Special Agent) Kepley returned to the river, where he rescued the two stranded women by pulling them and their float tubes to a boat ramp where they were safely reunited with their children. By his prompt action and humanitarian regard for his fellow man, (Special Agent) Kepley has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”


The citation was signed by Col. Garry M. Little, Commander, AFOSI 1st Field Investigations Region and presented by Col. Brian Bacarella, Vice Commander, AFOSI 1 FIR, during his staff assistance visit to Eglin AFB, Fla., Oct. 23, 2019.


“When the incident happened I didn’t see anyone else close by them and I was worried they would float down river or go under the water and not come back up,” SA Kepley said. “I didn’t think about anything other than the kids were in trouble and needed help.”