An undergraduate’s rescue ‘mission’ earns her the AF-ROTC Gold Valor Award

For her heroic act this summer saving five lives, AF-ROTC cadet Amanda Lloyd ’20 will receive the Gold Valor Award at Yale's Veterans Day ceremony.
Amanda Lloyd in her cadet's uniform.

(Photo by Michael Marsland)

On a July day this past summer, Yale junior Amanda Lloyd was about to set out for a kayaking trip with three friends on South Sandy Creek, which leads into Lake Ontario in northern New York state, when her parents warned her: “Do not swim in the lake!”

The waters of Lake Ontario were especially high and turbulent, and two students from the high school she attended had drowned just the week before. So Lloyd took her parents’ words of warning seriously.

After a calm kayaking trip down the creek, however, as Lloyd and her friends were picnicking and listening to music in a secluded spot near where the creek joins the lake, they heard what they thought might be screams for help. One friend, Libby Conners, climbed a dune to see five people struggling in the water, and alerted the others before calling 911.

Within seconds, another friend, Nathan Tyler, a trained lifeguard, bolted into the water to help. Realizing that he didn’t have a lifejacket and seeing six-foot waves, Delaney Ward, another lifeguard, grabbed a couple of lifejackets from the kayaks, and then Lloyd, holding the life vests, proceeded to jump in after him.

She immediately felt the strong current where the creek and the lake merge, but Lloyd was intent on getting a life jacket to Tyler and helping in the rescue of the five people — three children and two adult women — who were caught up in the lake’s fierce undertow.

I grabbed one young girl and dragged her along with me while I turned to find Nate,” recalls Lloyd, her voice choking at the memory. “We were yelling to each other but couldn’t find each other because the waves were so high. When I finally got over to him, he was holding on to two girls. He was being pulled under with every wave. It was a situation that you don’t like to see. It kind of makes you chill a little bit.”

Lloyd got the life jacket to Tyler and the two passed the three rescued children to another friend who was waiting in the water closer to the shore. Lloyd and Tyler then went out to rescue the adult women, who, clinging to a pool noodle in the turbulent sea some 200 yards offshore, felt so sure that they were about to drown that they were saying goodbye to each other.

To swim up and to hear that kind of thing really gets to you,” remembers Lloyd. “You can’t really prepare for something like that. Even when we had hold of them, they were saying ‘We’re not going to make it.’ We did our best to just keep them calm but our energy was focused on getting them back in.”

About 15 minutes after all of the rescued swimmers — still badly shaken by their experience — were on shore, they realized that another member of their party, the grandmother of the young children and mother of one of the adults, was missing. Emergency personnel had yet to arrive due to the isolated location of the spot and their difficulty pinpointing the exact GPS location.

That was really upsetting and is hard to talk about,” says Lloyd as tears well up in her eyes. “We tried to go out to look but didn’t see anyone.” Eventually two firefighters from the nearest station arrived on the scene, and a search began for the missing grandmother, who, sadly, drowned in her own attempt to rescue her family members.

For her act of heroism on that day, Lloyd will be presented the Gold Valor Award at Yale’s Veterans Day ceremony on Nov. 10 in Woolsey Hall.

The award is the highest honor of the Air Force Reserve Office Training Corps (AF-ROTC) Air Education and Training Command in recognition of  “the most outstanding voluntary acts of self-sacrifice and personal bravery by a cadet involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Lloyd is in her third year of AF-ROTC training at Yale.

Summer of transition

Lloyd joined the AF-ROTC during her sophomore year at Quinnipiac University, traveling several times a week to the Yale campus to take part in her ROTC coursework and physical training. In September, she began her junior year at Yale as a transfer student.

Lloyd had, in fact, expected to have a relaxing summer at home in Watertown, New York, after being accepted to Yale, where she is majoring in chemistry. Earlier that summer, she completed her basic training at bases in Alabama and Mississippi, and had gone home to New York to work in a frozen yogurt shop and to take some flight lessons at a hometown airport.

I was just home hanging out with friends, enjoying that transition time,” she says. She had heard of her Yale acceptance in May during final exam week at Quinnipiac, and says she was thrilled to be admitted to the school where she was preparing for her career in the military.

The events of that July day were still fresh in her memory as Lloyd began her new school year at Yale as a member of Pauli Murray College.

It was a draining day, physically and emotionally,” she recalls. “I remember us calling our parents to let them know what happened. It was a bittersweet moment. You can’t really celebrate the saving of the [five] lives because at the back of your head you are thinking about the one life you didn’t save.”

The grateful family members they rescued informed others about the brave acts of Lloyd and her friends, and they soon began to be honored for their courage, first by the Jefferson County Sheriff and later with the Liberty Award from the New York State Senate.

Amanda Lloyd poses with her three friends who helped rescue five people after they received the Liberty Award.
Left to right: Libby Conners, Delaney Ward, Nathan Tyler, and Amanda Lloyd pose together after receiving the Liberty Award from the New York State Senate for their heroic rescue of Lake Ontario swimmers in July 2017.

We weren’t looking for recognition,” says Lloyd. “We were just doing the right thing at the right time, and for us, it’s hard to fathom the sense of what we’d done. In that situation, we saw people who needed help and we could do it.”

Looking back, the Yale student says that the rescue could not have happened more “meticulously” than it did among the long-time friends, who each took on a task. One kept watch from shore, another stayed in the water close to shore to help pull in the rescued, and Lloyd and Tyler performed the rescues in the lake. After the ordeal, the group had a 45-minute kayak trip back up the creek to town.

Although deeply saddened by a loss of life that day, she and her friends are enormously grateful to have been at the secluded site.

People don’t really come to that location often, so it feels like it was meant for us to be there that day,” she says.

Part of the military “journey”

Lloyd’s father is a retired Army veteran with 28 years of military service who served overseas in Somalia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan during his career and her brother, a recent West Point graduate, is currently attending Army flight school. While she hadn’t originally envisioned a military career for herself, she says she quickly felt a calling to join the AF-ROTC.

I grew up on military bases and all of my friends had parents who served,” she says. “I didn’t know it was such a part of who I am until I went to college and missed it. I wasn’t surrounded by the same culture of patriotism, and I wanted it back.” She adds that she also wanted to be part of the military “journey” she so often observed as a child.

As a cadet in Yale’s AF-ROTC Detachment 009, Lloyd takes one AF-ROTC course each year in addition to her other Yale coursework (this year, she is learning advanced skills and leadership in the course “The United States Air Force Leadership Studies”). In addition, she takes part in twice weekly hour-long workouts and military drill at the Payne Whitney Gym, as well as a weekly 90-minute leadership lab. Along with the extra coursework and training, she is also juggling eight hours in an advanced research chemistry lab course and is a member of the Yale Triathlon Team. Asked how she manages such a demanding schedule, Lloyd says, “It’s what you are willing to sacrifice to find the time, and prioritizing.”

The Yale student says during her first semester at Yale, she has also been learning how to ask for help, and to collaborate with others, such as in her chemistry study group, an experience she didn’t have as often at Quinnipiac, as she was one of a handful of chemistry majors in her class.

My roommate is also a transfer student, so that’s helpful, and having the backbone of the ROTC — where I already knew other people — is also really helpful,” she says. “I’ve also noticed that everyone here is so willing to help. Asking for help is such an easy task here: deans, advisers, teaching assistants, professors — everyone is constantly reaching out to offer their assistance. I’m so excited to be here.” She adds that living in the new Pauli Murray residential college is like “living in a castle.”

When she graduates, Lloyd will be a second lieutenant in the Air Force, and hopes to become a pilot, noting that she is particularly interested in flying military transport planes such as C-17s and C-130s. However, she is also open to other possibilities. “Two years ago, I was an athletic training major at Quinnipiac, and now I’m a chemistry major at Yale,” she notes. “A lot can change in two years.”

In the meantime, she says she is honored and humbled to be receiving the AF-ROTC Gold Valor Award as she still processes the ordeal of that fateful July day.

I’m really excited to show younger cadets in our wing that leadership isn’t defined, as one of our cadets says, by the walls of Payne Whitney Gym where we do drill each week. It’s much bigger than that. … It’s being in charge and taking on a role that you weren’t expecting to when the time calls.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Paying tribute to Yale’s veterans