Marine veteran helps rescue autistic boy, uncle, from riptide in South Walton

MIRAMAR BEACH — Call it a string of coincidences if you want, but Steven Jetton knows better.

What the 44-year-old Marine Corps veteran, a man of deep faith, knows is that it was his God who led him and his family to be spending a few weeks in a Miramar Beach condominium, as a break from staying in their Texas home during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

What he knows is that it was his God behind his purchase of a used surfboard.

What he knows is that it was his God who placed him, his family and his surfboard on Okaloosa Island’s Princess Beach a couple of Saturday afternoons ago.

And what he knows is that it was his God who was with him on that Aug. 29 afternoon as he rescued a 12-year-old autistic boy and the boy’s 47-year-old uncle from a rip tide inexorably pulling them farther and farther out into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The details are just too obvious for me,” Jetton said, sitting Tuesday morning on the back porch of the Miramar Beach condominium where he, his wife, Rhodalynn, and their children — Judah, 13; Josiah, 11; Nevaeh, 8 and Noah, 6 — will be staying until sometime next month.

A committed Christian since he turned away from what he called “a party lifestyle” in his 20s, Jetton said God “just gave me strength for my own life ever since.”

Jetton, who had surfed during his time in the Marine Corps in California, but had been on a board only sporadically in the 20 years since, bought the surfboard the day before the rescue on a whim. He checked the surf conditions for the next day online, but got some bad directions to a spot where the surf was supposed to be good, so he and his family just randomly turned in to Princess Beach.

About 10 minutes before they planned to leave, the family heard a commotion a short distance away where the boy and his uncle were about 100 yards in the water, struggling to return to shore.

“I looked up and down the beach, and knew I was the only one who could help them,” Jetton said. He grabbed his surfboard, ran toward the family members on shore, and then hit the water with his board to contend with the challenging surf.

“It wasn’t huge, but it was rough,” he said. “I got pretty angry at the ocean. I was like, ‘God, you’ve got to stop this.'” The water settled down a bit, he said, which gave him time to think about his own children back on shore, and to ask “Am I doing something stupid?”

But next, Jetton experienced what he called “a clear moment,” in which he knew “deep down in my own subconscious, I was going to be OK.”

On shore, Jetton’s wife and children weren’t so sure.

“In that split-second (when her husband started running down the beach and into the water) were were like ‘What is he doing?'” Rhodalynn Jetton said.

“Our hearts were pounding,” she continued. The children, she said, “were like, ‘Dad’s going to die!'” Jetton gathered her children around her, and they began praying that “everyone out there is going to be OK,” she said.

Meanwhile, an exhausted Steven Jetton was getting closer and closer to the boy and his uncle. As he approached, Jetton remembered, the uncle told him to get the boy first.

“That’s a good man right there,” Jetton said admiringly.

At that point, the 12-year-old was barely above water, his ears and mouth about all that was visible. As Jetton pulled closer to the boy and maneuvered him onto the surfboard, Jetton remembered, “The first thing he said was, ‘God must hate me.'”

Jetton quickly dispelled that notion, telling the boy, “God loves you … and there was someone he had out here to help you. … He had somebody on the beach with a surfboard with the ability to help you.”

At the same time, the uncle began swimming toward the surfboard.

“Then I saw the lifeguards,” Jetton said, relief still evident in his voice days after the rescue. Local rescue personnel, some equipped with jet skis, arrived on the scene and got Jetton, the boy and his uncle to shore. The boy and Jetton were taken to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, and were released after some observation.

During the rescue, Jetton — pumped full of adrenaline from his exertion — suggested to one of the rescue personnel that he wanted to stay out and surf.

“I might just take one of these waves,” he remembers telling a rescuer.

“He subtly talked me out of it,” Jetton also remembered Monday with a smile.

Not surprisingly, that turned out to be a good thing.

“I was talking to the last lifeguard on the beach,” Jetton said, “and my legs gave out from under me.”

In the end, the day closed for Jetton and his family much as it would for any vacationing family.

“I went home and ate some Chick-fil-A,” he said.

And, Jetton said Monday, it’s not the rescue that he wants people to consider, it’s the inadvisability of getting into the water in the first place when the surf is kicking up.

It’s a lesson underlined by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office report on the Aug. 29 incident, in which a deputy was compelled to write, “It should be noted both Okaloosa Island and Destin Beaches were flying DOUBLE RED flags at the time of this incident. There were many swimmers in the water on both beaches who were all warned several times throughout the day.”