*Editor’s Note: The suicide victim’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
LEWISTON, Idaho — Screaming startled him awake.
Sgt. Cody Leifheit checked the time: 2 a.m. Sunday, June 7, 2015. Probably people filtering in from the bars, he thought. After moving to Lewiston, Idaho, and into the apartment only a week earlier, he wasn’t yet familiar with the neighborhood.
But the screaming continued. Hysterical. Incoherent. Was it a cry for help?
Running down the street, the 28-year-old Marine recruiter found a cluster of silhouettes milling beneath a tree, desperate and terrified. Their friend, 19-year-old Travis Kent*, was hanging from a branch 25 feet above them.
No one had a knife to cut Kent down, so Leifheit ran home for one and sprinted back to the tree. The stocky Marine jumped up seven feet, grabbed a branch and “strong-armed” his way upward, recounted Austin Tow, Kent’s roommate. Tow had scaled the tree in an attempt to save him.
“Sergeant Leifheit was like Hercules climbing the tree,” Tow said, adding that Leifheit reacted “without hesitation” and ascended the tree “as easily as if he were climbing stairs.”
Tow said he and Kent’s 14-year-old brother Dartanian “saw warning signs.” Kent’s life hadn’t been easy. When Kent was a child, his father committed suicide after losing a son to cancer. His mother was a drug addict. At 19 years old, Kent had a legal dependent in his brother Dartanian.
Kent had talked about killing himself, Tow said, but they didn’t think he would actually do it.
Perched on a branch above his friend, Tow panicked. Worried that Kent had a spinal injury, Tow didn’t want to cut him loose and send him falling to the ground. As Tow wrestled with his options, a “completely calm” Leifheit climbed up to him.
“I’m sure it was just another day for him,” said Cpl. Jeff Decker, who served under Leifheit from 2012-2015. He described Leifheit as a respected leader devoted to caring for and training his Marines. “If we gave 100 percent, he gave us 110 percent back.”
Leifheit’s proficiency in Combat Lifesaver training enabled his men to build confidence with casualty care, Decker said. He labeled Leifheit “the guy for the job.”
Tow reaffirmed this.
“Once Sergeant Leifheit climbed up to where I was in the tree, he said, ‘Hey, I’m a Marine and I’m here to help your friend.’ I instantly felt at ease.”
This was the first time Leifheit met Tow, Kent and their friends.
The muscular Marine – once a football and wrestling star at Ferndale High School in his hometown of Ferndale, Washington – took action. He hugged the tree with his right arm and wrapped his left arm around Kent, relieving pressure on the rope so Tow could cut it and release the noose. Leifheit checked his pulse. Nothing. Kent wasn’t breathing. He yelled for onlookers to call 911.
Using the tree as a makeshift backboard, Leifheit began performing chest compressions on Kent from 25 feet off the ground. A few compressions in, Kent began breathing. Twice more he lost and re-gained his heartbeat as Leifheit worked to bring him back.
First responders finally arrived. An emergency medical technician used a ladder to climb up to them. He checked Kent’s pulse and presumed he was dead, but Leifheit disagreed. “No, he just had a heartbeat!” Adamant, he resumed chest compressions. As Kent’s heartbeat and breathing were restored, Leifheit rubbed his sternum to check responsiveness.
A firefighter assisted Leifheit in safely moving Kent down the ladder. Amid a flurry of first responders, he was rushed to the hospital and placed in a medically induced coma.
Maj. Sung Kim, Leifheit’s commanding officer at Marine Corps Recruiting Station Seattle, said Leifheit’s actions personified traits instilled in all Marines, “from his initiative to take charge of the situation to his knowledge of basic life-saving skills.”
Leifheit spoke briefly with the gathered crowd before returning home to sleep. While they were in awe of what he had done, he was quick to downplay his response. Eight years of training and experience as a Marine brought him into the situation with only one option, he said.
“We can mess up a lot of things in life where there are no immediate consequences,” Leifheit said. “One thing you can never fail at twice is saving a person’s life.”
Kent spent 48 hours in a coma before waking up. On June 11, he walked out of the hospital, lifting a tremendous weight off his brother Dartanian’s shoulders.
“My brother is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a dad,” Dartanian said. “By saving his life, Sergeant Leifheit practically saved mine.”
Story by Sgt. Reece Lodder