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CENTCOM employee named ‘2015 Hero of the Year’

By Marine Cpl. Jordan Belser, U.S. Central Command

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March 24, 2016 — MACDILL AFB, Fla. (March 24, 2016) – Each day, service members are required to make correct, timely, and difficult decisions, often with life or death hanging in the balance. That is why it should be no surprise that U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Jessica Purcell, of the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) and a government contractor in U.S. Central Command’s J8 Directorate, chose to stop and assist a local Tampa man in desperate need of help.

It has been almost a year since Purcell helped rescue Reginald White, of Bradenton, Fla, when he fell more than 30 feet into the waters of Tampa Bay after a gust of wind from an oncoming semi-truck knocked him from a section of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Purcell has now been named “2015 Hero of the Year” by local TV news station Bay News 9. Purcell received the award during a March 21 ceremony in downtown Tampa.

“It’s an honor to have even been considered for this award,” said Purcell. “I don’t think I did anything special, or anything that a good Soldier or good person wouldn’t do.”

Purcell was driving across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge May 3, 2015 on her way home from U.S. Army Reserve drill duty in Miami. She said when she saw White’s wife and daughter screaming for help on the side of the road, she immediately pulled over to assist.

“There is no shoulder on that part of the bridge, and all the cars were just driving past the family,” Purcell explained. “Not a single car stopped, and I almost knew someone must have gone in the water.”

Purcell said the family did not have a working cell phone on hand and were unable to call for help.

“I called 911 and started to look for a mile marker to give dispatch a better idea of where we were located,” Purcell said. “After that I began to coach [White] on how to stay afloat and listened to make sure he was still responding.”

Purcell, still in her Army uniform, said she emptied her pockets and prepared to jump into the dark water in the event White ceased to shout back to her.

“He started to say ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore’ and I could tell he was close to exhaustion,” Purcell said. “I told him you better keep holding on to that piling, because the rescue boat is on the way.”

Purcell, a certified water survival instructor, said she relied on her military training to help keep White focused and alive.

“I knew that [White] didn’t have a lot of options due to the severity of the current that was flowing under the bridge,” Purcell said. “If he had moved away from where he was positioned, he would have been swept away.”

A marine rescue team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arrived to pull White from the ripping waters, and he was transported to Bayfront Health in St. Petersburg, Fla. for medical treatment.

Purcell said she still checks in on the White family every now and then.

“Oh, we’re friends now,” she said. “Sometimes I will send [White’s] wife a text message just to see how they’re doing. I am just happy that everyone was OK and able to go about their daily lives as a family.”