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Wrightsville Beach Captain Jeremy Owens: Loved ones honor a legacy and hope to increase mental health awareness

Tom Hanna, Wrightsville Photography
Jeremy Owens, WBOR Captain

[Editor's note: As a caution, this report does discuss suicide.]

Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguards will return full-time to the beach later this month -- and they’ve dedicated their 2021 season to one man: Captain Jeremy Owens. We’ll hear from the guards who hope to carry on his legacy...and the family that still misses him.

On Saturday, May 1st, 2021, rookies and returners came to the Crystal Pier, near the Oceanic restaurant, to compete for a spot on the Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue team.

Tom Hanna, Wrightsville Photography
Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue tryouts on May 1st, 2021.

“So I was here actually at his first tryout, and I would come every year to tryouts, and I was so proud of him. I would usually stand underneath the Oceanic so I could watch and not interfere or get in his way, as moms can sometimes, but I wasn't one of those moms, so yeah, I do remember, and it was great,” said Debbie Owens, Jeremy’s mom, remembering her son trying out for ocean rescue on Wrightsville Beach 16 years ago.

Debbie and Kerry Owens, Jeremy's Parents

Jeremy Owens took his own life last November. But his memory lives on through those who still love him.

“This is a super fun job, right, everyone enjoys it. I can’t imagine having done it for so long, not being in the ocean every day I can. And with him, and oh man, we sort of shared that love of the ocean,” said Jon Mauney, a lieutenant for Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue. He and Jeremy worked together for over fifteen years.

He remembered joining the lifeguard team with Jeremy: “And he was our head guard, believe he was two years into the job at that point. And we were all just a bunch of babies. Yeah, I’m in my forties now and we were in our early twenties.”

Jon said Jeremy wanted the guards to have fun, but to take the job very seriously.

And he can only imagine what an onlooker might have witnessed, seeing him and Jeremy sitting in the stand together: “And these guys are just out here living the dream in the sun, having a great day. And we were, but what you didn’t know was that the wheel was always turning. You were always looking at the rips; you’re always looking at the current; you’re always looking at the patrons on the beach and understanding there’s such a high calling to what you got to do. You’re going to go in and save someone’s life every day.”

Tom Hanna, Wrightsville Photography
Jon Mauney is a lieutenant for Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue

Jon said that this upcoming season is going to be tough for both him and his coworkers, “it’s going to be different because I’m not going to have my best friend, but to me, the important part is that we continue with what his vision was.”

Kate Hanna knows Jeremy’s vision well: “He was a leader. He was a friend. I respected him so much. He taught me so much. My sister and brother both lifeguarded as well. And they felt the same way. He’s also been a part of our family.”

On right, Kate Hanna is a supervisor for WBOR

Kate’s a Wrightsville Beach lifeguard supervisor. She first started working with Jeremy back in 2004. She remembered her first rescue with him where they saved a young boy clinging to Johnnie Mercers Pier.

She remembered one of the last ones, too: “Even this last summer, we responded to a 27-year-old male who was having a seizure. He wasn’t conscious when we got there, and I just kind of looked over and Jeremy was so calm, and I was like, okay, we’ve got this. And I just, I’m going to miss him a lot this summer. I know we all are.”

His mom, Debbie, said she hopes to honor him through helping others struggling with depression or PTSD.

“I am trying to turn all my energy into focusing on bringing awareness of mental health, bringing awareness of the importance of each of us being kind, and how important the words we say, we may not realize the words we say, the impact that it has even on a stranger we pass in the street, but they have an impact, a physical, a mental, an emotional impact, our words they’re very powerful. That’s not just a cliche,” said Debbie.

And she said she’s tried for a long time to get help for Jeremy. And there was one facility, in particular, the International Association of Fire Fighters Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery, she wanted him to go to, but the Town of Wrightsville Beach wasn’t yet a member of the association.

“The day after his celebration of life ceremony, I got an email from the president saying that Wrightsville Beach had been accepted and New Hanover County had been accepted and Wilmington had been accepted,” said Debbie.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suicide is one of the ten leading causes of death in the country. And the rates at which people take their own lives have risen by 32 percent over the past decade.

One of the warning signs, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, is calling people to say goodbye.

Jeremy did that with some of his friends and his mom before he died. Debbie remembered what that last phone conversation was like.

“He said, ‘Mom, I want you to know how much I love you. I want you to let dad, Nathan (brother), Cameron (sister), and Baker (nephew), how much I love them.”

I said, ‘Jeremy, they love you, too. And I’m coming home today. I’ll see you tonight.’

He said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it this time.’

I said, ‘Jeremy, you hang on, we’re going to make it.’

He said, ‘No, mom, what I wanted you to know is that I’m at peace now.’"

Debbie said his final words were the best gift he could give her.

She said she’s doing her best to cope without him: “I think it’s like a roller coaster, you have ups and downs. The hardest thing, I think, is driving in the car. For a long time, I couldn’t listen to music because music tends to have some story behind it.”

Kerry, Jeremy’s dad, is trying to process his loss by repairing a 30-year-old sailboat. He says Jeremy enjoyed sailing in the open ocean. “I’m currently putting it together, but it’s all-consuming, constantly thinking there to divert my attention from what happened because I cannot think about it.”

Debbie said she wants everyone to start paying more attention to the ones closest to you. Any chance you get, she said, share how much you care for them: “But if you look at the videos now of everybody saying what a great guy Jeremy was and how much they meant to him. If I’d had those videos with me to share with him when he was in his darkest space, it could have made a difference, maybe. What can we do before someone takes their life to be there for them?”

But Debbie and Kerry said Jeremy lives on through the people who knew him -- and through a new generation of lifeguards. They’re most proud of his founding of the Wrightsville Beach Junior Lifeguard camp. The camp now bears his name.

One participant, Bella Ctseh, remembers the care he took in explaining ocean safety: “He was so happy to take care of the kids and just have fun. I just love his energy.”

Guards running.JPG
Tom Hanna, Wrightsville Photography
Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue tryouts

Friends, family, and coworkers alike say they hope to embody his spirit, his energy, out on the beach this summer. His parents want the community to know, “Jeremy’s now looking out over the east coast.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.