Greetings everyone and Happy Monday!
Hope everybody is doing well. You know, in recent weeks I had been reflecting on my past military service in the United States Coast Guard with a certain measure of tenderness and pride, perhaps even sentimentality as well. One of the best decisions I ever made, without question, and certainly one of the experiential “pillars” that you could say comprised a good chunk of the valuable perspective, insight and character that makes me who I am today.
I entered as a Radarman (RD) in the Spring of 2001, Sierra-159 company. Yep, that’s right, the famed “It’s Just Eight Weeks” recruitment video company. My “claim to fame” was being the kid who was interviewed while fighting back tears in segment 7 after just learning that I had been reverted after failing the Performance Enhancement Platoon (PEP), which was essentially a mega-boot camp within boot camp (read: absolute unmitigated Hell) for recruits who let’s say needed a little more of a “push” to uphold the very high standards of discipline and obedience demanded of us. It’s not so much that I was a “problem recruit” behaviorally speaking as it was me being a bit scatterbrained from time to time and in need of a good tune-up in the interest of training me to realize and reach my highest potential. And boy did they tune me up alright, even though I still managed to get sent back a company because I continued to make a chain of small mistakes! I did earn a Command Master Chief key a few years later after the CMC of Pacific Area/D-11 showed the embarrassing video to the entire crew aboard the my ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Munro! 😱😂
RD was the rating (specialty) that dealt with everything operations oriented, including intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination, communications, and of course, radar surveillance and navigation. Not long after I enlisted the rating name was changed to Operations Specialist (OS) to reflect specialty’s rapidly-growing purview of responsibility and scope throughout the maritime environment.
As OS’s, we were charged with coordinating resources and logistics to prosecute search and rescue and other critical missions, and many lives were saved from being stranded on the high seas and other waterways in the process. Sometimes, unfortunately, one of our local units would answer a rescue call concerning a person who jumped from a high bridge in an attempt to take their own life. These calls were always the hardest because they almost always ended up with the person passing away.
I’d have to say that the highlight of my career began when I was on overnight watch as the Response Duty Officer at District Eight Command Center the moment Hurricane Katrina made landfall. My LT and I looked at each other and pretty much decided right then to rock and roll. He phoned the Admiral right away and I made other calls. It was time to put all our training and contingency plans into motion, and get the hell out of Dodge.
We reconstituted the District Headquarters in St Louis, and immediately set up a makeshift command center in a small office at a downtown mixed-use office building. During the first week alone we answered over 4,100 calls for assistance while pulling non-stop “port and starboard” watch schedules, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, day in, day out. Many of the calls came from people in search of loved ones, and people stranded themselves but who unfortunately had no clear sense of geographic reference to pass on to the servicing Air Station in Mississippi due to the massive flooding. Many were sick and in need of emergency medications either for themselves or others close to them. Some of the callers were children who were separated from their families, and vice-versa. We were of course exhausted and had a sense of helplessness as we realized there was very little we could personally do to help these people other than take their contact info down and approximate address/general geographic location to pass onto one of a few Air Stations/remote response stations for further coordination. But the adrenaline brought on and kept on by the elevated operational tempo gave us all the momentum we needed to keep pressing on. After about the second week one of the Captains allowed for the crew to take leave in staggered segments, where one group would be allowed to take a certain number of days at a time to return to the New Orleans area to check on their homes, gather their families and coordinate the logistics of where they were going to be staying and so on. Once the first group reported back another group would be free to go and so on. My apartment fared relatively well, but the complex as a whole was ravaged and had to be extensively renovated. If I recall correctly, there was at least one fatality there. The neighborhood and of course the metro as a whole looked like it could have been straight from a Mad Max-type apocalyptic thriller. Some of my shipmates were not so lucky, returning to substantially and in some cases completely-submerged homes.
We ended up staying in St Louis for several months, eventually relocating to a much bigger area to accommodate all of the District Offices, including a larger and more comfortable office to house the command center. The crew was relocated from temporary to more permanent housing and the constant outpouring of generosity, love, support and appreciation from the wider community was very moving. The command center crew eventually found ways to blow off steam and have fun during our free time. And boy did we blow off some major steam! In the process, we without a doubt solidified as a team and became much closer than ever before. We were the “Katrina Crew,” the tight band of officers, OS’s, and Marine Science Technicians (MST’s) who made it through one of the worst natural disasters in US history to contribute to the saving/assisting of over 33,000 lives in our own little way, while up against an unprecedented operational and logistical environment.
When I raised my hand to enlist, I swore to live by the core values of Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty, instilled in me from day 1 of basic training. These core values are the Guard’s guiding principles in everything we do, from search and rescue (SAR), ports and waterways security, marine mammal/marine environmental protection, drug interdiction, servicing aids to navigation (ATON), to humane treatment of migrants, defense readiness/homeland security, ice ops, diplomatic visits, and so on.
Even though I am long out of the Coast Guard now I still feel that it is my mission to live by these core values as I work to try to save lives in a different way, through being a staunch advocate for mental health awareness and support for all, not the least of whom my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. In the nearly 11 years I’ve been separated, I’ve been to the deepest oceanic trenches of despair with my own battle with depression and suicidal ideation. Indeed, last year was pretty much the closest I had ever been to being one of the roughly 22 veterans who on average succumb to the demons they so courageously and heroically tried to battle. But somehow, someway, I have managed to keep those demons at bay, enough to proudly proclaim my lifetime commitment to:
1) Honor the value of every life.
2) Respect everyone I come across, regardless of who they are or where they come from or what they believe or who they choose to love.
3) Remain fully Devoted to what I consider to be the noble and privileged Duty of reaching out to people who are hurting to show them love and appreciation for who they are and who they can become, and to advocate ceaselessly for those who hurt.
I’m not a trained therapist or mental health professional or anything. Just a regular guy who loves humanity and cries when you cry, always with a shoulder for you to cry on if necessary.
I am above all else a friend. A friend to all. A friend to you. A friend on a new mission, which is to be a lighthouse of hope to all who are hurting, and to urge everyone who has bravely overcome their own personal demons to please, please be a lighthouse of hope to others, for I can’t save everyone by myself, as much as I would like to be able to. Drop a few words of kindness and encouragement to people you come across in the course of your daily lives, online and offline, family, friend and stranger alike. Be especially kind and compassionate to those who make their hurt and pain known, whether explicitly or through suggestion. Together, we can get through this. And we will. Because I am ready for any opportunity that may come my way to help improve the human condition. And I want you to always be ready as well. Why? Because Semper Paratus, that’s why!