BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- For many, Labor Day weekend is one last chance to enjoy their favorite summer activity.
Sunday afternoon, Sept. 1, Maj. Jaesin White and his family set out on a hike to a popular swimming hole in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. They never suspected the path they followed into the woods that day would lead them into the heart of a grateful stranger.
"We'd considered driving up to the Oregon border to hunt volcanic rocks, but I wanted to just stay local," said White, commander of the 940th Logistics Readiness Squadron, a Reserve unit at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.
"I'd heard several of the guys at the squadron talking about a natural water slide up in the foothills near here, so I decided to take the family there for the day."
White, his wife, and their three young sons, along with White's parents, parked their car along a dirt road and set off on the three-mile trek that took them down a steep canyon to the waterfalls.
"It was a pretty good hike in," said White, "I was surprised to see so many people there when we arrived that afternoon."
The family had been there awhile, picnicking and playing in the water, when White took notice of a young lady shivering uncontrollably on a rock nearby.
"The water in the pools there is snowmelt from the Sierras, and it was ice cold," White said. "She was exhibiting all the signs of hypothermia Bear Gryll warns about on his survival shows."
As her condition rapidly deteriorated, the group of family and friends surrounding the young lady seemed confused about what to do to help her, so White decided to take charge of the situation.
"They all had that 'deer in the headlights' look, and I could see she was in serious trouble. My training just kicked in," White said.
White instructed several in the group to vigorously rub her arms and legs. He dispatched someone back to the road to call for help. He sent another to find dry clothes for the girl. He ordered a couple of young men to build a fire. White himself began pumping the girl's legs and arms.
Despite their best efforts, the girl began slipping into unconsciousness and her breathing slowed to a stop. White began chest compressions, and the girl's uncle breathed air into her lungs.
She begun breathing again and color was returning to her lips when, suddenly, she stopped breathing a second time. White immediately resumed CPR, and the girl came back around.
"I knew we needed to move her out of the forest before nightfall. We probably had less than an hour of daylight remaining," White said. "She couldn't walk, so we draped her arms around our shoulders and carried her up the cliffs along a path that inclined at a 45-degree angle."
It took the group nearly an hour to reach flat land.
"By the time we reached the fire road, she was able to get her feet under her and take small steps with support," White said. "She was responsive and even started worrying about her hair and clothing. I knew she'd be alright then."
Five minutes later, emergency responders arrived along the road.
"Because of the remote, back country nature of that location, our normal mission time is 4-6 hours from the time the 911 call comes in to arrival at a definitive care facility," said Greg Schwab, fire chief of the department that responded that afternoon.
According to Schwab, emergency calls from the falls area have increased dramatically in recent years, jumping from an average of three missions each year to 12 missions last year.
"It's become entirely too popular to go out there. People don't realize how dangerous it can be. You're in a steep canyon with limited cell coverage. If something happens, it takes a while for help to arrive," Schwab said. "In this case, I'm glad someone was there who could put together a rescue plan and execute it."
"God sent me an angel and that angel was Jaesin," the rescued teen said. "He's my hero, and I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for everything. I owe him big time. I'm so thankful to see another day."
"I was just glad there was a happy ending to the weekend," White said.
During his squadron's Unit Training Assembly a few days later, White had the opportunity to share his story with the reservists under his command.
"I told the squadron I'm personally never going to those falls again, but if they do, they need to be prepared and realize their personal limitations. They should never go alone somewhere like that, and they should always be prepared with water, food and a First Aid kit."
The commander also used his experience as a teachable moment, praising his unit's training monitors for their dedication to ensuring everyone in the unit is trained.
"Self-Aid and Buddy Care is required annual training for every reservist, but I don't think we realize how invaluable this training actually is. You can't put a price on training that saves lives," White said. "It's the difference between being able to help someone or having to stand helplessly by because you don't know what to do."
White said the incident was a personal reminder that decisions you make in the heat of a moment truly define who you are.
"We all have choices in life to become involved or not. To me, a hero is someone who makes the decision to help and then does everything in their power to follow through to the end. It comes down to doing the right thing, no matter what.
"I just see myself as a concerned person," White said. "You have to try to help people in distress. If I'd decided not to become involved and then heard later on the news that the girl at the falls hadn't survived... No, you do what you can to make sure you can live with yourself."