I enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1996, on my 24th birthday as it happened, and served for five years, leaving the Guard in January of 2001. I spent a year aboard a cutter, the Escanaba, homeported in Boston, and then four more years at a small boat station in Nags Head, North Carolina. In five years of doing search and rescue I was part of a number of cases where lives were lost. There were some cases, elsewhere in the Guard, where crew were lost too. The only Coast Guard death that I was directly part of was when I was onboard the Escanaba.
It was one of my first patrols onboard the cutter, and we were doing fisheries operations in the closed areas off??the New England coast. To expand our reach in searching for vessels fishing illegally we had a Jayhawk helicopter on board. We'd been at sea for a few days, and were maybe a few weeks into our 6 week patrol – I didn't keep a diary and my memories of these events aren't exactly photographic. I think this may even have been my first patrol; I was still overwhelmed with learning what it meant to be a sailor at sea, adjusting to the rhythms and routines of life underway. Still, when I heard the Executive Office get on the 1MC just after dawn I knew it was an emergency before he even said the words. He called for the helo crew to make ready for emergency operations and suddenly the whole ship sprang to life. Dozens of people made their way to the hangar to get the helo and landing deck ready for launching, other crew members, some still pulling on their clothes, went to their stations. My job was to be part of the crew that would launch a rescue boat should the helicopter crash during takeoff or landing, and we had to wait on the mess deck??by the galley so we'd be out of the way while the helo launched. Then the XO called for stretcher bearers to lay to Engineering berthing, and suddenly we all understood that this time the emergency was for one of the crew.
An Electrician's Mate, probably my age, new to the crew and fairly recently married if I remember correctly, had gotten sick with strep. The HS1, essentially a well-trained EMT we all called "doc", had been treating him for a few days, but he'd gotten far worse overnight. This morning it was clear he was in bad shape and Doc had called for him to be medivac'd in the helo. Then he stopped breathing. The stretcher bearers carried him through the mess deck, Doc working a breathing bag, the whole scene one of controlled panic. The electrician's mate was unconscious, slick with sweat and pale like I'd never seen a person before. They got him up to the helo and that bird got off the deck faster than anyone had ever seen it done before. The helo flew him directly to a hospital in Boston, with the HS1, the helo crew's EMT, and another EMT-trained crewmember from our ship giving him CPR for the whole flight. He didn't make it. His strep infection had affected his heart, a problem??Doc didn't have the tools onboard to fully diagnose. Had we been in port he probably would have been ok, but we were at sea and??a long way from the kind of??help??he ended up needing.
My shipmate didn't lose his life during a rescue operation, or while conducting a law enforcement boarding, he just got sick while we were underway.??Every life lost by a servicemember, regardless of circumstances, is a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who choose to serve. Today, I remember my shipmate and everyone that I served with during my time in uniform, and give thanks to all of those who lost their lives in service to their country.