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Distinguished Flying Cross awarded

By Staff | Feb 7, 2009

By DREW WINCHESTER, dwinchester@breezenewspapers.com
The Distinguished Flying Cross is a rare honor. It’s awarded to the men and women of the armed forces who distinguish themselves with acts of heroism while in flight.
The first cross was awarded in 1938 to Charles Lindburgh for his contributions to aeronautics. Since then, the list of Distinguished Flying Cross recipients reads like a virtual who’s who on the political and private landscapes.
John McCain, George H. W. Bush, John Glenn, Chuck Yeager, George McGovern, Clark Gable, Gene Rodenberry and Amelia Earhart are but a few of the people to be graced with the honor, each with his or her own contributions to heroism and brilliance in the face of adversity.
Now, a Florida man has earned his place alongside those legendary names, having helped, or contributed, to saving the lives of 39 people in 2007.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Erick Leib earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during a search and rescue operation in Chehalis, Wash.
The so-called “Great Coastal Gale of 2007” brought hurricane-like conditions to the Great Northwest, causing widespread damage that included flooding, heavy rain and at least 18 deaths over a two-day period.
Stationed in Astoria, Ore., Leib was called into action to help save lives in the small burg of Chehalis.
“Yeah, it was a rough night,” Leib recalled. “I was subjected to some harsh environments, some difficult situations, but I wasn’t looking at it as a job. It’s not like I didn’t want to be there. The whole time, in the back of my mind I’m thinking: I’m doing what I love to do.”
Now that Leib is stationed in Sitka, Alaska, he said he looks back on that fateful night that happened over a year ago and has trouble recalling every single detail.
He said he “assisted” in 39 saves, while Leib’s father Fred said his son was directly responsible for saving five lives, and assisted in the other 34.
The semantics of the situation seem to be a moot point. The fact is that Leib, 28, leaned heavily on his training and ambition to help save lives when he was called upon to do so.
During a recent phone interview from his Bokeelia, Fla., home, Fred Leib pointed out his son was an Eagle Scout, though he did not speculate on what might have been going through his son’s head while pulling people from the floodwater.
“His inner workings are his,” he said, adding, “but he’s always had a service bent.”
A retired teacher, Fred Leib and his wife, Debi, met in Clewiston, Fla., where Erick was born and raised.
Though a man of few words, Fred said he and Debi are very proud of their son’s accomplishment, adding that the award itself says everything.
“Its a prestigious award and were very proud of him. The citation says it all,” he said.
Erick went off to school at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where he spent several years searching for direction.
He said he felt as if we were simply meandering through his college existence, failing both himself and his parents, who wanted nothing more than to see their son succeed.
When he set his sites on becoming a rescue swimmer for the Coast Guard, everything began to coalesce.
“I know that when I was going through college, I felt like I was failing my parents because I could not find anything I wanted to do with my life,” Leib said. “When I set my goal to become a swimmer, that was the most serious commitment I made in my life. I didn’t just do it for myself, I knew I wanted to show my parents I could do something difficult and see it through, and not give it up.”
Leib is required to “stand duty” once every five days. When he is on duty along with a helicopter pilot and co-pilot, a typical day for Leib and his crew consists of meetings, preparations and … waiting.
Often, there are duty days that go by without so much as a bleep, as Leib spends his down time working out, watching television, reading a good book.
But, then there are times, like that fateful day on Dec. 3, 2007, when those who are standing duty are called upon to save people’s lives.
For Leib it was merely his turn to help when the call came, letting the training take over.
“It’s not every day a natural disaster occurs, it’s not like in the movies. We constantly train so when things like that do come around it’s like second nature,” he said.
Leib down plays his achievements of that day, down plays his age, down plays the fact that he has earned a distinction that few others have.
Yet, the fact remains that 39 people’s lives were affected by his actions, whether directly or indirectly, and he will always have the Distinguished Flying Cross to remind him of his actions.
“I have to be modest about it in that fashion, but in another sense, it’s not handed out to everyone. I know a lot of swimmers who have gone their whole career and not gotten one,” Leib said. “It’s an incredible honor. I’m very proud of what we did that night, and it means the world to me. I’ll always remember that case, and how shocked I was when they told me I had won the cross.”