Into icy water to save a life: Navy divers honored for rescue

Groton — Two divers assigned to the Naval Submarine Base were recognized Wednesday with the Navy's highest award for noncombat heroism for rescuing a man whose vehicle veered off a roadway and landed in an icy pond.

John McLeod, 26, of Wiscasset, Maine, and Thomas "TJ" Parhiala Jr., 22, of Salem, N.H., were presented with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal by Vice Adm. Charles "Chas" Richard, commander of U.S. submarine forces, during a ceremony on base attended by their families, peers and other Navy sailors.

"Every one of us is trained, but few of us ever actually get to that moment where we're tested, where it's real, where the decision has to be made now," Richard said. "I've often wondered, would I be up to that moment? Well in the case of these two fine sailors, we know the answer to that question. They rose to the moment."

McLeod and Parhiala were driving on Route 17 in Maine early in the evening on March 23, 2018, when they noticed a vehicle about 300 to 400 yards ahead of them in the opposite lane. The next thing they saw was a plume of dust then a big splash. A Jeep Cherokee was bobbing in the water.

They pulled over to the side of the road, got out and headed for the water.

The passenger side window of the Jeep was open, and they could see an arm sticking out. The driver, identified by police and news reports as Jonathan Marr, 35, of South Thomaston, Maine, was floating, unconscious, inside the car.

Parhiala pulled Marr out of the passenger side window and passed him to McLeod, who swam him about 100 yards to shore. Parhiala stayed back to check if any other passengers were inside the car or in the water. There was so much debris and garbage, it was difficult to see, the men said. Authorities later determined that Marr was the sole occupant of the vehicle.

Witnesses on shore had already called 911 and Marr was transported to a nearby medical center, from which he was later released.

Asked whether they relied on their Navy training during the rescue, Parhiala said, "I'm sure water comfortability came into it, but for the most part, it's just if you see something, you do the right thing. At the end of the day, that's really all it was."

His mom, Joyce Parhiala, interjected: "Not everybody would go into icy water."

While an alcohol test was not administered, a blood test was pending at the time of the crash report prepared by the Rockport Police Department, which says Marr was driving recklessly prior to the crash.

McLeod and Parhiala said they never heard from Marr, who disputed the accounts from witnesses and officials. He said in an interview with the Penobscot Bay Pilot that no one got in the water to save him, and that when he reached shore people helped pull him up.

When McLeod and Parhiala mentioned offhand to their chief what had happened, they didn't think it'd lead to any sort of recognition.

But the chief, Overton Pierce, tracked down more details, including the police report, and nominated them for the award. Pierce said he felt they were worthy of recognition given the circumstances — "somebody's life was in danger."

They were unsuspecting even as of a couple of weeks ago, when they were told to have their uniforms ready.

"We were like 'What? Are we in trouble?'" McLeod said.

And on Wednesday, they seemed a bit uncomfortable with all the attention they were receiving.

"They're pretty humble guys," Pierce said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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