Navy Officer Leaps Into River to Save Wheelchair-Bound Child, Caregiver; Hailed as Hero

July 2, 2020 Updated: July 13, 2020

A U.S. Navy officer named John Miller was out for an evening jog in Norfolk, Virginia, when he witnessed a desperate scenario playing out: a disabled child and his caregiver were floundering in a nearby river, and so the officer quickly rushed to help.

The lieutenant, a nine-year Navy serviceman, was running along the Elizabeth River trail when he noticed a man and a child in a wheelchair on the edge of the seawall. Shortly afterward, he heard a splash; the man and the child had both fallen into the water with the wheelchair still on the banks of the river.

“I was about 10 to 15 yards along the length of the [Spirit of Norfolk] cruise ship when I heard a splash,” Miller, of Kinsman, Ohio, explained to WTKR. “I sprinted back to the edge and initially saw only the man, who appeared to be floundering.”

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Lt. Miller, credited with saving two lives while on an evening run near his residence (Ian Delossantos/U.S. Navy)

Miller told a bystander to call for help before leaping 10 feet into the water, a choice he made without considering an alternative, he says.

His instincts took over.

“Treading and swimming with another person is difficult,” the Naval officer explained, “but I was in the water before I knew it.”

“I knew [the boy] could not survive the water with his disability, so I had no choice,” Miller added. “I did not know the water skills of his guardian and I could not be sure of any possible injuries or trauma to either of them.”

Miller told the man to wrap his legs around him to prevent from becoming fatigued. The disabled, non-verbal child was held between the two adults. Miller pulled the pair toward the seawall but found it covered in barnacles and impossible to grip on to.

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(Illustration – Brandon Gray/Shutterstock)

The officer managed to grab hold of a line from a cutaway bumper and assumed that the trio would have to wait for first responders to arrive; however, the bystander who had called 911 wheeled the child’s chair down the pier, making it more accessible.

The officer and the man, together with the child, swam toward the pier’s ladder. “[W]e were all out the water by the time the police arrived,” Miller said.

Despite his pivotal role in the rescue, Miller hailed the “true hero” as the child’s primary carer, who had jumped into the water before Miller and the bystander had gotten involved. “If one person is missing from that chain of action, it may have turned out badly,” he told the Navy, citing teamwork as the operative factor.

“I would thank the man and the child’s mother, and deliver the child a couple balloons. I’ve heard they make his day,” he added.

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Lt. Miller with Navy Warfare Development Command, Naval Station Norfolk (Ian Delossantos/U.S. Navy)

“At the beginning of my military career, now-Major Clayton Jarolimek, USMC, said to always place yourself at the point of friction where you can maximize your influence on the outcome,” Miller shared. “I try to do that every day in everything that I do.

“It does not change when I take off my uniform, go home, and enter my local community. People of strength and in positions of power must always look out and fight for those who cannot defend and protect themselves.”

Miller lives in downtown Norfolk with his significant other and their dog.

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