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‘Sky Soldier’ jumps from cliff to save man from drowning on Father’s Day

Lt. Col. John Hall of the 173rd Airborne Brigade takes a moment to fulfill a request for a photo with two French boys dressed as Soldiers in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France. Hall recently saved an Italian civilian from drowning while spending a weekend with his family in Italy. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo)

It was a beautiful Father’s Day in Contra Pria, Italy. Families enjoyed a picnic together, and the refreshing water served as a welcome refuge from the heat and humidity of the last weekend leading into summer.

This peaceful scene completely changed in the blink of an eye.

“This weekend I was with my family at a local swimming hole [in Contra Pria]. A local national jumped into the frigid water from a cliff and it quickly became apparent he could not swim. All of a sudden, a fully clothed Sky Soldier jumped into the water from an adjacent cliff and saved the man by swimming him to the shore,” stated 2-503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne) Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Jim Keirsey in a message to 173rd Airborne Brigade Commander Col. James Bartholomees.

“That Sky Soldier was Lt. Col. John Hall.”

Upon learning of Hall’s actions that day, Bartholomees stated, “John’s selfless service does not cease when he takes off the uniform. As a professional National Guard officer serving on active duty in our brigade combat team, John embodies our Army Values 24/7 and his heroic actions at Contra Pria are proof positive of his strong commitment.”

That commitment was on full display in the quiet mountain village of Contra Pria that day.

This tiny hamlet is made up of a few houses that appear lost in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. The half-dozen houses follow the course of the Astico, a small river created by the melting snow of the mountains that flow down into the rocky valley, creating deep chasms with frigid still waters that invite adventure seekers escaping the summer heat.

“It was forecast to be a warm Italian summer day, so we decided to take the family to a local swimming area in the Dolomite Mountains recommended by a friend,” said Hall. “My grandsons were visiting for a few weeks and were eager to play in the shallow areas of the stream where the rocky cliffs fade into a shallow riverbed. While there were a few visitors swimming and jumping from the cliffs, I decided it would be best if I stay out of the water because of knee surgery just seven weeks ago, not wanting to risk a good recovery.”

When Hall and his family arrived early Sunday morning, another paratrooper, Lt. Col. Keirsey and his family, who were picnicking and swimming with some family friends in the remote swimming area, surprisingly greeted them. They introduced their children to each other who then played in the beach areas together.

“The rock cliffs and crystal-clear river below with the Dolomite Mountains in the background on a sunny day made this Italian ‘swimming hole’ a small paradise,” said John’s wife, Laura Hall. “We noticed a few people jumping from the 20-30-foot cliffs that formed a small canyon along the stream. Jumpers would often pause for scuba divers in wet suits exploring the glacial waters that feed into the chasm below.”

“The boys were taking a break from the cold water when I decided I would climb up on the cliff to see what the divers were exploring,” said John Hall. “Just as they swam away, four Italian men, probably somewhere in their twenties, appeared above the river on the opposite cliff. They seemed to be daring each other to jump. Two immediately jumped and then challenged their friends. One chose not to jump at all, while the other hesitated, but after a few minutes I saw him falling through the air.”

Hall describes that when the man hit the deep frigid water, he began to thrash about, yelling for his friends to help as he repeatedly went under water. The two men who jumped in earlier leapt from the cliff to attempt a rescue, but as they swam up to him the scene turned into what appeared to be a fight or wrestling match in the water.

As the scene developed, Hall could see from his vantage point on the opposite cliff that the struggling man was drowning, and would possibly drown his companions, as they all began to go under water together.

“I jumped from the cliff,” Hall said. “I swam over to the three men, firmly wrapped my arm around the chin of the drowning man and pulled him onto my hip. The other men briefly continued pulling at one another and us. Once we broke free, I swam the man to the cliff, pulled him around, and placed his hands on the rocks.”

One of the man’s friends swam over to help Hall hold him in place while he caught his breath. Hall shares that they spoke to each other to make sure the man was ok. They all paused for a moment at the water’s edge.

“Then he reached over to shake my hand, thanking me for saving his friend’s life,” says Hall.

But the group was still in deep water without a foothold. Exhausted and in shock, the man was unable to work his way along the rocky face to reach the shallow waters. As they both clung to the rock face, Hall indicated to him that he would help him climb and push him up to safety.

“Once he was safe, I swam over to a rocky outcropping and climbed to verify that he was ok. Still shaking from the experience, the man turned and gave me a hug.”

“John Hall will claim he was just in the right place at the right time to save that guy’s life, and that may be partially true,” said Keirsey. “But it really takes the right person to recognize somebody is in jeopardy and then have the courage to do something about it.

“Lt. Col. Hall jumped, fully clothed, from a cliff to save a drowning local national. That’s good stuff.”

Laura Hall related the events as she saw them. “When I saw John climb up the cliff, I pointed him out to our grandsons. I knew he was interested in the divers and seemed to be casually watching them. Then I could tell from his posture that he was looking into the water more intently. I could tell from his stance that he was about to jump, even though he was fully clothed with shoes on.

“He jumped.”

“At first, I thought he was just jumping to amuse our grandsons who were watching. When I saw him swim into a group of splashing men and pull one out, it was then that I realized that he was saving the man.”

“This is what we are trained to do, to assess difficult situations and make them better,” said Staff Sgt. Alexander Henninger, NCOIC of 173rd Airborne Brigade Public Affairs. “We emphasize to our paratroopers the need to take leader initiative, to be agile and disciplined in our responses to any situation. It is about living the Army values every day. I know any of our paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, or service members from across the Armed Forces, will help any person in need if they have the opportunity. This is who we are as American Soldiers.”

“I was surprised that someone who couldn’t swim well would jump into those waters, but I wasn’t surprised that John helped him,” said Laura with pride. “That’s just John.”

Lt. Col. Hall has been working in Vicenza, Italy, on the senior staff of the 173rd Airborne Brigade since August 2017. In the past year he has supported combat training throughout Europe. He is a schoolteacher from Flint, Michigan who is proudly serving a one-year tour of duty as a Sky Soldier with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He will return to his classroom teaching English, history and theater for the fall semester. He is also an officer in the Michigan National Guard. Both of his daughters serve in the U.S. Army, as well as all three of his brothers.

“I am just so glad that someone was there to help him,” Hall said. “After it was over, I couldn’t help thinking it was Father’s Day. No man should lose his son on Father’s Day.”