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Fort Moore Army soldier awarded medal for heroism that saved 3-year-old and her father

A Navy and Marine Corps medal is placed on the uniform of an East Coast based Naval Special Warfare Operator. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Andrew L. Johnson/released)

He hasn’t even graduated yet from the initial training course, but Pvt. Matthew Cole already dramatically demonstrated his ability to live up to at least two of the U.S. Army’s core values: selfless service and personal courage.

In a ceremony Tuesday at Fort Moore, Cole was presented with the Soldier’s Medal for his heroic actions that saved a 3-year-old girl and her father from the rising Chattahoochee River while he was off duty May 26 in Columbus.

Cole, 18, also was promoted from private second-class to first-class.

How Pvt. Matthew Cole saved girl and father

Descriptions of the incident from the medal’s citation, Fort Moore’s Public Affairs Office, a Columbus Fire & EMS report and an article by the Stars and Stripes, tell what happened when Cole was on a day pass following his unit’s Turning Green Ceremony, which marks the completion of the nine-week Basic Combat Training portion of the 22-week One Station Unit Training for Infantry recruits.

His unit is Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment of the 198th Infantry Brigade.

Cole, of Martinsburg, West Virginia, and his family were visiting the Chattahoochee Riverwalk in downtown Columbus on the Friday before Memorial Day. He noticed a man, a woman and a toddler eating lunch on rocks accessible only when the water level is low and the nearby Georgia Power hydroelectric dam is closed.

When he heard the siren alarm that signifies the dam is releasing water, making the water level rise and the rapids flow faster, Cole sensed the folks on those rocks were in a dangerous situation.

Then he saw the toddler and father drift downstream as they struggled to reach the riverbank.

Cole — in his Army uniform — jumped into the river and swam through the rapids to rescue the girl and bring her to safety. He went back in the river to help her father dislodge his foot from the rocks.

The mother was stranded on the rocks, but a whitewater raft brought her to the shore.

Reaction to Pvt. Matthew Cole’s heroism

“Private Second Class Cole’s actions are keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon him, the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, and the United States Army,” the medal’s citation says.

The Soldier’s Medal was established by an act of Congress in 1926. It is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces or of a friendly foreign nation for distinguished heroism not involving conflict with an enemy.

Columbus Fire & EMS Marshal John Shull told the Ledger-Enquirer an average of one person per year drowns in the river. The father and daughter could have been one of those statistics if Cole hadn’t acted so well, Shull said.

“It shows tremendous courage,” he said. “Part of me would want to discourage anybody from jumping in the Chattahoochee River, and there’s a part of me that’s proud to see when somebody is willing to put their own safety aside when they know somebody else’s life is in peril. … It just kind of speaks to the type of people the military is producing in our back yard.”

Shull wrote in his report to Cole’s executive officer, “I share the opinion with the squad that responded to the incident that if not for the courage displayed by Matthew Cole, two lives would have been lost that day. PVT Mathew Cole disregarded his own safety to move swiftly into danger to help a family in danger. The department is grateful for Cole’s heroic response.”

Highlights from medal ceremony and phone call to dad

Gen. Gary Brito, commander of the Army’ Training and Doctrine Command and former commander of the post, presented the medal to Cole in front of his 65 fellow company members — the same company Brito commanded — while they took a break from field training exercises on the Malone MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) Range in the fort’s Sand Hill section.

“This represents great soldiers. I know he would do this for any one of his battle buddies, and I know every one of you would have done the same thing as well if you were in that situation,” Brito told the company. “I could not be more proud of you. Thank you, buddy. Well done.”

The general then invited the private to speak. Embodying the selflessness of his heroism, Cole chose to speak only a few sentences — and they were all about his unit instead of himself, looking forward to their Aug. 25 graduation.

“We’re almost done,” he said, sparking laughter. “It’s been challenging, probably the most challenging thing we’ve all (expletive) done — ever. Yeah, we did it. Yay us.”

After the ceremony, the general had another invitation for the private: a cellphone call to share the news with his father.

“Hey, Dad. . . . I’m here with the four-star general of TRADOC.”

“Oh, cool.”

Brito joined the conversation.

“Hey, sir. This is a good news story. … I had the pleasure of presenting Matthew with the United States Soldier’s Medal for the acts he did in the river. … We could not be more proud of him. … You have a great soldier here. I know you know that.”

“I’m very proud.”

“You raised a great young man.”

“Thank you. I’m glad he learned how to swim.”


(c) 2023 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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